Zack didn’t like computers.
At age 3, he was diagnosed with severe autism. His parents decided to send him to a specialized school, where he could get one-on-one attention. It was there that he was first introduced to computers.
“It was impossible for Zack to use a computer,” said his grandfather, John LeSieur. “He was throwing the mouse and throwing the keyboard [in frustration].”
LeSieur is the owner of PeopleCD, a software production company that creates programs to build an interaction between the Internet and software application. PeopleCD’s released the beta of its first program, a child-friendly web browser called KidCD, in late 2006.
When the beta was released, LeSieur let his grandson try it out on their home computer and was shocked by the result.
Zack loved it.
Now, LeSieur tells stories of how Zack will go up to the computer, turn it on, and start playing around with the computer on his own. “[The computer] is a tool that he really likes and enjoys, and that he never shows any violence for, which is really good for mom,” said LeSieur.
“He was able to get the results he was looking for,” he said. “Since it’s a full screen application, the only thing he could do was to click on an icon to get results. [Zack] was very happy with his results.”
Zack is now 6, and he didn’t like the updated version his grandfather created, KidCD 2.0. Other young children who had been using KidCD 1.0 had a hard time changing the browser pages to view the other icons accessible and had just been clicking on those they could see. LeSieur changed the settings so that the icons would switch every hour to allow a variety of websites. It was this feature Zack did not care for.
“Autistic children like things when they are very organized. It’s in place, and they know they fill find a result right there,” LeSieur said.
In order to continue the successful relations Zack was having with the computer, his grandfather came up with an alternate version of 2.0. In this version, the main page was an aquarium (Zack’s favorite), and included mouse animation and stationary icons.
“He was so happy, even if [he] doesn’t speak, you can see it from what he’s doing and how many times per day he goes back to the computer,” LeSieur said.
Thus, in April, the ZAC Browser was born.
Since LeSieur made the browser accessible from his website, zacbrowser.com, over 150,000 people have installed the free program on their computer.
“I can tell you it’s amazing how many e-mails per day we get from people where it has just changed their world,” he said.
Named for his grandson, Zac also stands for “Zone for Autistic Children”.
Autism is described by the National Autism Association as a bio-neurological developmental disability that generally appears before age three, impacting the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function. Individuals with autism typically have difficulties with communication and social interactions.
“People are always watching for a magic teaching tool [for autism],” said Temple Grandin, science professor at Colorado University, who has autism and is seen as a poster child for adults living with the affliction. “A computer is not the magic tool. A first grade teacher is.”
Grandin said she sees the ZAC Browser as a helpful alternative for autistic children, but not a stand-alone solution for development in autistic children.
“A computer program is not your primary way that you teach young autistic children,” she said.
While Grandin acknowledged that the ZAC browser is a great activity for autistic children, especially in place of video games, she emphasized that nothing can replace one-on-one interactions with other people.
Symptoms of autism as described by the Autism Society of America are notably little to no eye contact and lack of interest in forming relationships. Children who are diagnosed with autism need to be taught things like taking turns, manners and sharing.
“They’ve got to learn not to be rude,” Grandin said.
Those types of concepts are hard to teach over a web browser.
“A lot of autistic kids are spending a lot of time on video games, but you can’t get them to do anything else,” Grandin said.
Still, a few hours on the ZAC Browser can be very beneficial for an autistic child. The browser’s filter does not allow access negative or violent websites, and those available are geared towards education. Since he first started using the browser, Zack has learned new words and started speaking more.
He has also not been violent toward the computer since his grandfather installed the ZAC Browser.
As the first web browser created specifically for those with autism, Zac has already reached amazing success with those who have accessed it, LeSieur sees the ZAC Browser as changing the future of how software is created.
The ZAC Browser has helped adults with autism as well. A woman, who identified herself only as “Mwoolhiser” on the ZAC Browser forums, told other posters of her son Robbie’s success story. At 31 years old, Robbie loved the computer but was tpp easily distracted by so many options. After his mother downloaded the ZAC Browser, Robbie was using the computer by himself within 35 minutes.
When used in accompaniment with other teaching tools, the ZAC Browser can be a great way to teach autistic children. Nothing can replace the effect human contact has in positively influencing those with autism.
Grandin’s advice to parents: A lot of computer monitors flicker, a phenomenon that we tend not to notice with our eyes. Due to the eye problems that is oftentimes a symptom of autism, many autistic children notice the flicker that we do not, and this can lead to violence towards computers. While this type of outburst is not true for every autistic child, when given the choice between a laptop and a regular table-top monitor, 20 percent of autistic children choose the monitor. Laptop screens, by contrast, are made differently than other monitors and do not produce the same flicker. In order to prevent damage to the laptop keyboard, try hooking up an external keyboard for your child to use.
For other helpful tips from Dr. Temple Grandin, visit her “Teacher’s Tips” section on Autism.com.