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Collection: Early Childhood

purple arrowUsing an Expanded Keyboard to Help Students with Autism Learn to Write

The following vignette is an expanded version of the sidebar, "Expanded Keyboard Helps Students with Autism Write," from the print profile Preschool Technology Supports Inclusion. The vignette focuses on Paula Brassil's integrated classroom at the Warren Prescott School in Boston, MA. The benefits of access to an expanded keyboard for James, a student with autism, are highlighted.

Helping Students with Autism to Write

Over the past five years, Paula Brassil has developed an integrated program for her five students with autism (ages 5 through 7) for half of each school day. She regrets that students with significant cognitive and behavioral difficulties are often excluded from integrated programs, and believes these children have much to gain from integration.

In Paula's kindergarten class, as in many others, students grapple in their own ways with oral language and how it relates to other symbol systems such as pictures and print. While all of Paula's students benefit from developmental writing, she feels that these skills are especially critical for her students with autism. For them, writing is another means of expanding their limited communication repertoire.

James, a 6-year-old boy with autism, speaks words infrequently and occasionally expresses his needs through disruptive actions. Like many students with autism, James benefits from predictable learning tools and environments that ensure some degree of success.

Keeping her special needs students focused is always a challenge, particularly during a group activity. Paula finds the computer can help serve as an attentional anchor. Unfortunately, the standard keyboard can be overwhelming for students like James. The mix of letter and abstract function keys, as well as the random placement and small size of letters, can be confusing. In addition, James can get lost when he has to constantly look at the monitor to confirm his selections.

Paula has been able to dispense with many of these problems since introducing her students to a specially designed keyboard, known as an expanded membrane keyboard. This flat, hard plastic surface is bigger than the a standard keyboard and can be programmed to meet each students' needs, such as listing letters in any order or partitioning the board to contain one or many commands.

The board Paula has chosen is called IntelliKeys, a 15" by 10" membrane keyboard with enlarged boldface letters displayed in alphabetical order. James can readily see the letters, knows their locations, and can confirm his selections by listening to the speech as he writes. With Intellikeys, James' frustration level has diminished and his letter recognition and beginning spelling skills are improving.

Today, Paula's students work in small groups to create charts depicting the life cycle of the ladybug, a theme she uses to incorporate peer interaction and a process approach to writing. After the students sequence and color pictures depicting each stage of the life cycle, the group sits together at the computer and writes a story about the ladybug. Paula uses the standard keyboard to type each student's contribution to the story. James needs prompting to articulate a full sentence but enjoys seeing his words appear on the monitor.

James and his fellow students decide on a title, which James types using Intellikeys. Students add their names to the group story's byline and print out individual copies.

The Ladybug by James, Caitlin and Megan.

The egg is cracking.
The larva is hatching.
Then a pupa comes.
The ladybug comes out to eat aphids.


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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

ŠEducation Development Center, Inc.