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Teaching Computer Mouse Skills to Students with Severe Autism, part 2

I missed that I had already posted about my mater’s thesis, but I decided to keep this post along with the original because some additional background information is here. Unfortunately, much of this information is the same as or similar to my earlier post. I apologize for this inconvenience.

Here is a PDF of one version of my Master’s thesis presentation, Teaching Computer Mouse Skills to Students with Severe Autism. You may have to navigate around the page a bit to find my paper. I just visited the webpage and found several other papers by different authors on my page. I think that Research Gate automatically loads research projects that it thinks may be of interest to its readers.

This presentation was revised too many times to count, and I have no idea if I posted the final version to Research Gate. Regardless of which version this is, I think that my earlier research may be helpful to some people. There was a time that many people in special education were told to only use adapted general education supplies and textbooks. I even remember a science teacher from another school once telling me that his school threw away the special textbooks designed for students with reading disabilities and replaced those books with the same books that the general education students were using. This teacher told me that his students’ test scores went down instead of up, but some politicians of the day firmly believed that students with significant disabilities were being held back because they were not using general education textbooks and supplies.

Around that same time, my principal was conducting a tour and mentioned in front of me that my computer lab students were using the same software that their counterparts in general education use. Fortunately for me, that particular class was indeed using mass marketed software instead of software designed for students with significant disabilities.

I also heard a local politician declare that special education was a failure because we put students in smaller classes, with specialized textbooks and materials, and they still cannot pass their tests. This was a complete oversimplification because many students with disabilities are able to take and pass standard exams. It is also, in my opinion, unrealistic for a person with an IQ of 40 to be able to pass a test designed for people with IQs of 100. The educational evaluations that I read no longer state an IQ score, but the same concept still exists. How is a nonverbal student who is just beginning to learn basic communication skills going to pass the test? Why were some politicians dictating that the solution was to remove the specialized materials and expose all students to the same instructional supplies? How many of those same politicians had degrees in special education, or even in education? I heard too many times from a few popular politicians of the time that special education is a failure because students were not being exposed to the same instructional materials as their non-disabled peers. All people who receive special education services were lumped together by these politicians, regardless of the nature or severity of their disabilities.

All of this made me think that I really needed to study whether or not my students with the most severe forms of autism really were helped by using software that was designed for students in general education. What I learned was that my students were able to learn to use the computer mouse more quickly when they had regular access to specialized software than when they used the same mass produced software that my students with less severe autism or intellectual disabilities were able to use. My gut instinct told me that specialized software was an important aspect of my students’ education. Now, I had the data to justify my position.

I focused on students with severe autism because this was a fairly new group of students in my school at that time. In the past, students with similar learning needs and behaviors would have been “dual diagnosis” students, diagnosed as having both a severe intellectual disability and severe autism. Another common diagnosis when I began teaching was severe intellectual disability (more commonly referred to as a cognitive delay in my school thirty plus years ago) with autistic tendencies. It made no difference to me as a teacher what the official diagnosis was. If a student would rather chew on the computer mouse or bang it on the table, it was my job to teach the student to use the mouse appropriately. But for this project, I only studied my students who were classified as having autism.

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Teaching Computer Mouse Skills to Students with Severe Autism

I wrote the thesis for my second master’s degree back in 2007, but some people still read it fifteen years later. At that time, there was a huge push in special education to modify general education supplies instead of using textbooks and other supplies that were designed for students who needed specialized materials. I even knew a science teacher who had to dispose of his adapted textbooks; his school gave him regular books for his students. That teacher reported that just as he expected, and in opposition to what some politicians believed, the students fared worse in the science exam when they used regular textbooks. This got me thinking about my students with even more severe disabilities.

Around that same time, the definition of autism started changing so that more students with very severe disabilities were classified as having severe autism instead of having severe to profound intellectual disabilities (sometimes with autistic tendencies or what was then called dual diagnoses). My tipping point came when my principal was showing her supervisor my computer lab and bragged about how I was adapting regular software and supplies to fit the needs of my students and no longer using specialized supplies. Of course, the adapted equipment was only hidden for the duration of the walk-through, but in general we had far fewer adapted items in the computer lab than we had two years earlier.

After finishing this study, I no longer had to use adapted regular supplies with all of my students. My students who needed specialized equipment and software could once again use those items. I could point to my research to prove that specialized materials helped many of my students. This type of research is sometimes called teacher action research because the primary function of my research (besides being a requirement of my master’s program) was to help me improve as a teacher in my technology lab.

Here is the pdf of the slide show that accompanied my thesis, Teaching Computer Mouse Skills to Students with Severe Autism. You have to scroll down the page a bit to find the “View full-text” link. Unfortunately, this slideshow/pdf was created before I leaned how to format PowerPoint and pdfs for screen readers. I can no longer find the full paper, but this version may help some people who work with students who have significant developmental delays.