Autism: Real Life Learning and Technology on the Farm

Katharina Boser AutismThis post was written by Dr. Katharina Boser. Dr. Katharina Boser received her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University in developmental psychology and cognitivescience. She completed a post doctorate at the University of Maryland. In 2000, she joined the research faculty at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Cognitive Neurology, where she studied language training with low-verbal subjects and cognition (number representation, memory and visual attention) in children with autism. She was a board member and later Co-Chair of the Innovative Technologies for Autism initiative for Autism Speaks until 2011. Dr. Boser is President of Individual Differences in Learning, an educational nonprofit in Maryland that provides professional development to teachers and parents regarding brain-based teaching techniques and innovative technologies for students with a range of cognitive impairments, including autism and twice exceptionality. She directed a grant and designed video based training materials entitled “Walking the Path with the Twice Exceptional Learner.” She is currently the technology coordinator and teacher for the Glenelg Country School in Ellicott City, Maryland. She is also a co-editor and chapter author for the new volume (due in press, November 4, 2013) with Brookes Publishing, entitled, “Technology Tools for students with Autism.” Dr. Boser presented a webinar on edWeb in December 2013 on Teaching Reading and Writing through Social Language Contexts to Students with Autism.

Autism_Blog_PicRecently, I was invited to The Center for Discovery (TCFD), natural facility nestled in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Their focus is on a curriculum of ‘nature-based’ learning in which students connect their learning with hands on environmental learning. The population of students includes mostly those with relatively severe cognitive and physical impairments from 5-21, many of whom have a diagnosis of autism.  The student curriculum includes understanding life on The Center’s bio-dynamically certified farms, Thanksgiving Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and Stonewall Preserve Farm.  This includes understanding and working with the farm animals (cows, pigs, sheep and chickens), working with the vegetables, herbs and soft fruits that are harvested and, as they get older, taking on more responsibilities associated with the farms.

Students with autism have special needs in language based learning that includes a focus on increasingly more complex ‘symbolic’ or abstract learning and integration of how words are ‘social’ tools and characters have social motivations and goals. The special ways in which reading must be refocused for students with autism is highlighted in a chapter I wrote with Dr. Sarah Wayland in our recently published book “Technology Tools for Students with Autism” (see details at the end of the blog). While some basic aspects of reading skills, such as letter sound correspondence, seem effortless in students with autism (hyperlexia is common), much slower and difficult is learning abstraction and as basic skills are learned, students need regular practice comprehending social meaning.

Sixty teachers participated in a daylong workshop where we focused our learning on creating multimedia quizzes and ebooks on life cycles of different animals using both iPads and computers. Throughout the day, teacher shared some of the fabulous ways in which they encourage higher levels of reading comprehension and fluency in their students. This school has a truly “Universal Design for Learning” environment, as learning in more natural environments allows for good ‘brain’ food in the form of different modes of representation as well as more hands on ways for students to demonstrate what they know and move from concrete learning to more abstract knowledge through digital media.

Insects were especially important, as there is a big focus on composting, where the little critters hang out! Learning animal life cycles and also which items are compostable and which are not is also an important skill to teach in this environment. As part of the workshop to give teachers some tools for the iPad for creating multimedia documents, I demonstrated two iPad apps that are UDL friendly, provide instant feedback and currently free (1) tiny tap (2) bitsboard. Tiny tap is a ‘game creation’ tool that allows the user to import images and add text to create an interactive learning environment where students can touch a designated ‘hotspot’ on the screen that is set as either the correct answer or not. Several questions and hot spots can be associated with the same image and several images can be included in the same ‘quiz’. When answered correctly, the student sees a visual and verbal response and correct and incorrect responses can also be set by the teacher. In addition to the quiz format there are also more ‘exploratory’ ways of interacting with the media such as explore and puzzle mode. While this tool is great for creating interactive games, there is only a basic data collection mode, which cannot be changed, and separate students can currently not be set. The number of total items included a problem, for example, includes the distractors. Quizzes and games can be ‘shared’ on the on-line site–so that other teachers can download for their use. These end up being public games so images of students should be avoided.

The second tool I showed the group is called bitsboard. The free version of bitsboard allows a limited number of students to be entered but a paid version will allow data to be collected for a larger set under the same account. The great benefit of using bitsboard is the great variety of different games that can be created from the basic set or library of stimuli/media entered including matching, text to images, image to images, memory, spelling, audio to image or text. A large range of pre-made sets is already available for download on the web-server with high quality images and sound. Although there is an adaptive learning mode and mastery is recorded, a drawback is the lack of adjustment to managing data and measurement of skill. For example, skills are measured by how often a particular item is chosen correctly–a small icon appears next to the item to show a percentage of correct. The results can’t be exported and the system automatically adjusts which item is included in future assessments for that student.

The teachers and technology specialists shared their own ideas throughout the day. They are working together to create media of real events and interactions the students have outside, keeping as well to core curriculum content. For example, Jason shared his ‘adapted’ PowerPoints, which have embedded videos of baby lambs whereby students can ‘re-experience’ the lambs suckling milk from a bottle and playing in the meadow first hand. The students can click on the video icons to get a feeling of the ‘real’ experience they had outside while learning vocabulary and comprehending sentence grammar. Sarah shared her experience teaching a book learning group where they focused on the extra media resources available for magic tree house books as an online research tool. They students were really excited to learn more about tornados and were able to get online to learn more about them using the links associated with the scholastic book series. Other books in the series also have online resources for the topic of the book. See with links to the “facts behind the fiction”.

Sarah’s students got engaged in learning the vocabulary and comprehending more about tornados by watching videos and seeing images of tornados and where they appear. Another teacher, Krystal, was sharing how she used the Kindle to engage her students and make it easier for teaching assistants to ‘join in’ the book comprehension lessons with individual students using the notes function. The kindle screen can easily be projected to large screen using a VGA adapter so students can see highlighted words, Notes embedded with comprehension questions and definition that popup when you click on a particular word. Teachers can also enlarge text that they are focusing on.

During the afternoon sessions, I shared several other literacy resources include CAST’s Bookbuilder and VizZle. CAST Bookbuilder, which teachers can create on a computer, with accessibility tools built in as well as ‘talking coaches’ in the form of cartoon characters built in to allow students to answer questions and think about the test. Sound and images can be included to let students hear and see what they are reading. It also includes word definitions. Books can be downloaded for reading offline but work best in the system they were created. Great examples are included in the online system of how to make books more accessible, the UDL way. (See

As we focus on UDL, I also want to mention VizZle tools that allow greater flexibility in creating, inserting visuals, videos, and audio, while also collecting data. It has tools for games, books, literacy, and communication. More importantly, VizZle has built in ‘autism’ friendly tools for helping students succeed in navigating and understanding their environment–such as scheduling boards, timers and adjustable reward systems. Everything is customizable and thus UDL friendly. They recently had a major update to make it run more efficiently and effectively on iPads than before. Check out some games that are already created to teach ‘nature based’ learning such as Lifecycle of the Ant and Recycling and Composting. Try more lessons with a free trial at

Many more tools for literacy learning in students with autism were discussed and also available in our recently published book “Technology Tools for Autism.” There is a whole section on language tools and chapter 8 focuses specifically on reading and writing with an emphasis on the particular social and sensory adaptations necessary for adapting reading/writing lessons for this population. (

In addition, other apps can be found and explored that work on reading skills as well as other areas necessary to support reading e.g. vocabulary, spelling, learning readiness, social comprehension, virtual play etc. on my wikisite “apps for autism” (

I was very impressed with the level of advancement that the teachers were able to encourage in their students through the use of more digital media in teaching reading to more severely impaired students on the spectrum. The care and effort these teachers are taking on behalf of their students was very evident–as the teacher Sarah put it to me, “It is a great challenge at times, but the rewards are even greater!”

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