Previous research indicates that ASC children are more willing to spend time reading material accessed on computer than a book (Williams et al., 2002). This suggests that a computer-reading program may be an effectual tool for teaching children with ASC. The Waterford Early Reading Program (ERP) software - The Rusty and Rosy Learn with Me™ program - has demonstrated effectiveness in early education classrooms. Students using the program consistently outperform children not using the program in basic literacy skills. Anecdotal reports suggest that young children diagnosed with ASC may benefit from the ERP software, but it has never been formally tested using a rigorous scientific design.
Objectives: We hypothesized that ASC children would improve on basic reading skills in response to 5 months of consistent use of the ERP software, significantly more than children with similar usage of the Waterford Early Math Software (EMS). We predicted that the level of improvement would be associated with age, extent of program usage, and severity of autism symptoms.
Methods: Participants were 25 children between the ages of 4 to 7 (mean = 5.68) and diagnosed with an ASC. Each participant received assessments of math and reading skills at baseline, at 5-month crossover of the software assignments, and at the end of the 10-month study. Assessments include reading assessments using the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), which measures the acquisition of early literacy skills in children; and the Waterford Assessment of Core Skills (WACS). Math assessment is done using the math portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). After baseline assessment children were randomly assigned to begin at-home instruction with either the ERP or EMS for 15 minutes a day/5 days a week. After 5 months of lessons with one program, each child returned for a second assessment then began instruction with the alternate program for the following five-month period.
Results: Data for the first 5-month follow-up show significant improvement on average for math skills for EMS users and reading skills for ERP users. For 16 users who have complete, 10-month data available, reading scores improved significantly more than math scores did during the corresponding software assignment. Baseline test performance was correlated with age but not autism symptom severity. Follow-up performance was associated with age and usage time.
Conclusions: The Waterford ERP software offers potential as a tool for assisting early academic instruction in young children diagnosed with ASC. Follow-up to the cross-over instruction as well as analysis of math improvement in response to the EMS program will provide more knowledge about the possible effectiveness of computer-assisted instruction for ASC.
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