How Apple II Computers Are Helping Autistic Children

(Note - This article was written in the early 1990's. Some of the facts listed in the article may not be currently current.)

From the early days of the Apple II's history, Apple Computer supported its use by special needs populations. Using such assistive add-ons as the Adaptive Firmware Card (AFC Card) and the Echo II speech synthesizer, special needs children have been benefitting from intellectual enrichment opportunities unavailable through any other means.

While the Apple II can be useful for use with a broad range of special needs persons, I happen to have a special interest in how computers can be of help to persons with autism. For those who might not know, autism is an enigmatic neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain in diverse ways, mainly involving communications and social-skills deficits. Autism manifests itself in several well-defined behavior patterns: compulsions to perform certain tasks over and over again (as in hand-washing), difficulty in expressing needs, avoidance of eye contact, apparent insensitivity to pain, lack of understanding of impending dangers (i.e. autistic child standing on railroad track), inappropriate or no response to loud sounds, extreme distress for no discernible reason, and an aversion to being cuddled or hugged.

The general public's awareness of autism was raised recently with Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of an autistic person in the movie Rain Man. But what most people don't realize is that there are a whole gradient of autistic behaviors. The autistic behavior portrayed in Rain Man are not entirely typical of all autistic individuals. (The "autisic savant" is not a common characteristic of all persons with autism.)

To be sure, milder forms of autism can respond to early intervention. When an autistic child is diagnosed properly, parents and teachers can plan appropriate strategies to help compensate for the particular deficits a child might have. Determining the exact nature of those deficits is where the Apple II comes into play.

Last week I had the chance to visit some developmental psychologists doing interesting work with the Apple IIGS at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington DC. Dr. Donna Vaught and Dr. Deborah (Debbie) Custer work with young children diagnosed with "pervasive developmental disorder," a form of autism. They use the Apple IIGS in several ways: 1) to help draw these children out, 2) to help diagnose the child's cognitive capabilities and deficits, 3) and to help show parents how computer-assisted instruction might be of help with their special needs child.

The children that visit the developmentalists range in age from birth to 7 years old. Dr. Vaught explains that many of these children have physical coordination problems, but may have much higher cognitive capabilities. These children often show enthusiasm for computers for the simple reason that interacting with computers does not call for the complex social skills the rest of us take for granted.

The computer also helps the developmental psychologists better ascertain what mental tasks the child can and cannot do. The computer assessment of cognitive abilities serves as a useful adjunct to the standardized "pen and paper" cognitive tests that are given to these children. Debbie Custer mentions that she'd love to see some of these standardized tests transported over onto the computer. With its motivating effect, the computer can help children concentrate longer on the tests. And the longer that the children spend performing the tests, the more these tests reveal the child's particular strengths and weaknesses.

The software used to diagnose children's abilities starts out with the very simplest of computer tasks. I had a chance to try out some "switch" software, where children press a single large red switch when a particular animal passed in front of a hand on the screen. This simplified form of arcade game can tell the psychologists a lot about children's hand-eye coordination as well as whether the child has a good sense of cause and effect. Dr. Vaught mentioned that one autistic child who was previously rather non-verbal showed a greater inclination to communicate when prompted to describe the animals he saw on the computer's screen.

Debbie Custer went on to explain how the children that visit their office range across a spectrum of developmental abilities. The task of the psychologists is to diagnose where a child's skills falls on a continuum, and then to prescribe the most appropriate course of action to meet that child's needs.

I was surprised to learn that much of the software being used with these children is public domain, freeware, or shareware. Apparently some useful software for special needs purposes has been generously distributed in this fashion. [Editor's Note: Parents or teachers interested in acquiring copies of public domain or shareware Apple II special needs software are directed to contact Joan Tanenhaus at Technology for Language and Learning. The address and phone number of this organization are given at the end of this article.]

I had a chance to try my reflexes with some of the public domain and shareware software used at the hospital. Persons who use Apple II's with special needs populations might recognize the names of the programs I examined: Functional Academics, Step by Step, The Scanning Game, Single Switch Games, Dot to Dot, Clown, Dancing Man, Fireworks, Number Switches: Animals, Number Switches: Shapes. None of these programs are particularly fancy, but most do a good job of establishing cause-effect relationships between the child and the computer.

Donna Vaught also mentioned that she had heard that one of the best software publishers of special needs software is Laureate Learning Systems, in Winsooki, Vermont. I, too, have heard of the acclaim and accolades this company has earned. [See sidebar article for further information about Laureate.]

I can't wait to go back and visit the hospital to see how these special needs kids are using the computer. It's a moment of special magic watching how an Apple II computer can bring such joy and excitement into their lives.

Phil Shapiro

The author takes an interest in the use of computers with special needs populations. He can be reached at: and at


Dr. Donna Vaught
Dr. Deborah Custer
Children's National Medical Center
111 Michigan Ave., N.W.
Washington DC 20010-2970
(202) 884-2187


Two of the best publications that cover special needs computing software and hardware are the ConnSENSE Bulletin, and Closing the Gap. The ConnSENSE Bulletin is a highly respected publication assembled by Chauncey Rucker, at the University of Connecticut. Both ConnSENSE and Closing the Gap sponsor annual conferences on special needs computing. What are the differences between these two publications? The ConnSENSE Bulletin is a more informal, more along the lines of a well-organized user group publication. They tend to ferret out more info on products from smaller developers. Closing the Gap articles tend to be longer. Each publication has something important to offer.

Here is subscription information for these publications:

ConnSENSE Bulletin (3 issues per year)

US Individual ($15), Schools & Institutions ($26), Individuals outside US ($20). Multi-year subscription discounts available, too. UCONN
A. J. Pappanikou Technology Lab
249 Glenbrook Rd, U-64
Storrs, CT 06269-2064
(203) 486-0172

(Make checks payable to: A. J. Pappanikou Center)

Closing the Gap Annual subscription: $26
Two year subscription: $42

Closing The Gap
PO Box 68
Henderson, MN 56044
(612) 248-3294

(Make checks payable to: Closing The Gap)

Other Resources for Apple II Special Needs Computing

Joan Tanenhaus
Technology for Language and Learning, Inc.
P.O. Box 327
East Rockaway, NY 11518
(516) 625-4550

[This non-profit organization was started in 1988 to help advance the use of technology and computers with children and adults with special needs. The organization's principal work has been to collect and create high quality public domain and shareware Apple II software for special needs users. A 46-page catalog listing the collected programs is available for $10.

Joan Tanenhaus, the founder and principal operator of this organization is nationally recognized for her expertise in assistive computing. She writes regularly for Closing the Gap and other national publications, and was asked to be one of the judges of the 1991 Johns Hopkins National Search for Assistive Technology contest. Most of her time is spent giving workshops and doing consulting work with schools and organizations in the New York City metropolitan area.]

Street Electronics Corporation
6420 Via Real
Carpinteria, CA 93013
(805) 684-4593

[Manufacturer of Echo and Cricket speech synthesizers
Echo works with the Apple II+, IIe, and IIGS.
Cricket works with the Apple IIc and IIc+.
The TextTalker program that makes these speech synthesizers work is written in Applesoft BASIC. It's possible for persons with a knowledge of Applesoft BASIC to create their own talking software, or modify existing public domain programs to add speech synthesis features.]

Don Johnston Development Co.
Manufacturer of Adaptive Firmware Card
1000 N. Rand Rd., Bldg. 15
Wauconda, IL 60084
(800) 999-4660

America Online: DJDE
CompuServe: 72350,3143
Contact person: Barbara Sistak
[Note: As of January, 1994, the price of
Adaptive Firmware Card is $520, plus
$15 shipping. It can be used in either the Apple IIe or IIGS.]

Manufacturer of TouchWindow touch screen
P.O. Box 3218
Redmond, WA 98073-3218
(800) 426-0856

Apple II TouchWindow list price is $275.
Available at discounted street price from Quality
Computers and Educational Resources.
Quality Computers: 1-800-777-3642
Educational Resources: 1-800-624-2926


Disabled Children's Computer Group (DCCG)
2547 8th St.
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 841-DCCG

[The Disabled Children's Computer Group is a community based resource center that allows parents and teachers to examine and try-out software and hardware for special needs persons. Nationally recognized. Well worth a visit if you're in the San Francisco area.]

Trace Center
University of Wisconsin
S-151 Waisman Center
1500 Highland Ave.
Madison, WI 53705
Tel: 608-262-6966; Fax: 608-262-8848
TDD 608-263-5408
Email on the Internet:

[The Trace Center distibutes an inexpensive CD-ROM disc, titled: "Co-Net CD-ROM" that includes several databases with information about 18,000 assistive and rehabiliation devices. This CD-ROM is available for Macintosh or IBM computers, and sells for $27 (including postage).]

Autism Society of America (National Headquarters)
7910 Woodmont Ave, Suite 650
Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 565-0433
(800) 3-AUTISM
(301) 657-0869 (fax)

"The AUTISM SOCIETY OF AMERICA promotes information and public awareness on autism. We currently operate through a network of 186 state and local chapters working with parents, professionals, and the general public to educate and inform them about autism. The Society publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Advocate, distributes free information packages, and offers referral information."

I was really impressed by the information packet the Autism Society of America sent me. This organization should be the first stop for anyone wanting to learn more about autism. Apparently the organization conducts most of its information referral work by phone. Annual dues are a reasonable $20 for individuals, and $30 for families.

Recommended reading:


Grandin, Temple, Emergence; Labeled Autistic

(A moving autobiography by a college professor who tells about her life and experiences with autism. See also New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks, listed below.)

Barron, Judy and Barron, Sean, There's a Boy in Here, New York : Simon & Schuster, 1992. (A riveting first-person account of a mother's attempt to reach her autistic son.)

Hart, Charles, A. A Parent's Guide to Autism, New York, NY : Pocket Books, 1993. (A book with useful practical advice.)


Autism: Learning to Live/ Presented by the Institute for the Study of Developmental Disabilities, Indiana Resource Center for Autism ; produced by WTIU/Indiana University Radio and Television Center, Bloomington, IN : Indiana Resource Center for Autism, 1991. 1 videocassette (58 min., 46 sec.).

Autism-- A World Apart/ University of Southern California School of Broadcasting-Journalism; Boston, MA: Fanlight Productions, [1988]. 1 videocassette (30 min.)

Autism-- Reaching the Child Within / Alexandria, VA : PBS Video, c1988, c1985. 1 videocassette (30 min.)


Sacks, Oliver, "An Anthropologist on Mars," The New Yorker p106(18), 12/27/93. A fascinating article about Temple Grandin (author of the book "Emergence; Labeld Autistic"), written by the award-winning psychologist and author of the book "Awakenings."

Book Review: "Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the World of Autism," The New York Times Book Review, p25, 4/3/94.

Laureate Learning Systems (sidebar 1)

Laureate Learning Systems was founded in 1982 by two speech-language therapists interested in how computers can assist children and adults with special language needs. The company's software spans across a "linguistic hierarchy," ranging from toddler age on up. Their software can also be helpful to adults suffering from "traumatic head injury" and "aphasia."

Laureate's software has won all sorts of awards and recognitions in the assistive computing field. I was impressed to note that a list of their awards takes up half a page in their "company profile" flyer.

Currently they have 16 "Apple IIe" software titles, and 10 Apple IIGS titles. The IIGS programs run under System 5.0, and usually require 512K or 1MB of RAM memory. Hard drive users will be pleased to note that this GS software is hard drive installable, although you need to insert the original "key" disk for the program to operate.

It's useful to note that many of the company's "Apple IIe" software can be run on the older Apple II+ computers as well. Bernie Fox, the company's vice-president, explains that the catalog refers to the software as "Apple IIe" software to differentiate it from their Apple IIGS software. Almost all the "Apple IIe" software titles can run on the Apple II+, IIe, IIc, and IIc+.

Preview and Pricing Policy

A generous preview policy allows parents and teachers to try out the software for 30 days before purchasing it. (Just call with a credit card number or purchase order.) The prices on their programs seem rather high by customary standards. The lowest priced programs sells for $95 per disk, and the highest priced programs sell for $225 per disk. But considering that this company is producing software for a specialty "niche" market, those prices are not all that high.

Steep discounts are offered for schools or learning centers wishing to purchase several copies of the programs. You can buy a lab pack of five disks for double the price of a single disk; or you can buy ten disks for three times the cost of a single program.

Also, Laureate has an innovative offer whereby customers can trade-in programs that have been "outgrown," and receive a credit of 50 percent of the original purchase price towards their next purchase.

Finally, the company recently set up an electronic mail address to help communicate with existing customers and prospective customers. You can reach Laureate on CompuServe at: 74040,73, or via Internet at:

Laureate Learning Systems
110 East Spring St.
Winooski, VT 05404-1837

A free catalog of their products is available upon request. The company also has an 8-minute videotape giving information about their software. This, too, is available for free upon request.

While visiting the Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C., I had a chance to see two Laureate programs in action. "First Words" trains and tests early development nouns. Words are presented in various categories, including: animals, household items, body parts, outside things, clothing, toys, common objects, utensils, food items, and vehicles. I couldn't help but smirk at the cute animation and sounds in this program. Correct answers are rewarded with zany humorous antics on the screen.

Donna Vaught mentioned how show liked using this program with Edmark's TouchWindow. She went on to explain how the software gives some important customizing options: you can choose to have the Touchwindow accept responses that are right on the location of the word/graphic being tested, or you can choose to have the TouchWindow accept responses that are in the general vicinity of the word/graphic being tested. By allowing such choice, the software can still be beneficially used with children who have motor coordination deficits.

Another program I examined was Micro-Labs. As with Laureate's other software, this program gives many choices to customize the activities for a particular student or hardware set-up. For example, higher functioning children might opt to use a mouse rather than the Touchscreen input device.

Sidebar Two: Online Resources for Parents of Autistic Children

In doing research for this article, I uncovered some dandy online resources for parents of autistic children. One resource of particular note is the autism mailing list operated via St. John's University, in New York. This mailing list includes discussions and commentary by persons with autism, relatives of people with autism, friends of people with autism, and professional autism researchers.

Here is information on how to subscribe to this list.

AUTISM - SJU Autism and developmental disabilities
Address: listserv@sjuvm.bitnet

When subscribing to the list, it doesn't matter what you write in the subject area of the message.

In the body of the message, write the words:

subscribe AUTISM Chris Miller

You'll then receive an automated "Welcome to this List" response from the computer maintaining the list.

Austism Frequently Asked Questions File

Here is information about how to obtain a "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) file about autism.

"Subject: Reminder: Memo covering Frequently Asked Questions about Autism
From: "John M. Wobus"
Date: Fri, 13 May 1994 13:30:33 -0400

This is a reminder that I have prepared a memo covering frequently asked questions on autism that I post on this list, but very rarely and irregularly. A couple of ways you can get it any time:

anonymous ftp:
node =
full path of file = information/autism/autism.faq

node =
Choose these menu itmes in this order:
Syracuse University's FTP archives
Computing Services FTP Archives

It includes a long bibliography of books: when I read a reference to a book in the e-mail list, I add it. Corrections & facts to fill in blanks more than welcome. Opinions welcome too.

John Wobus
Syracuse University

Sidebar 3: Independent Apple II Special Needs Software Developers

Several independent software developers are working to produce Apple II special needs software. Perhaps the best known of the independent (read: one person company) special needs software developers is Bill Lynn, of SimTech, in Connecticut. Bill is a nationally recognized HyperStudio guru, and presents frequently at regional and national computer conferences. He has also written many articles on special needs computing subjects. In assembling information for this article, I sent Bill some questions via electronic mail on GEnie. Here is a copy of the answer he sent:

Item 3665681 94/02/16 13:25
From: BILL.LYNN Bill Lynn
To: P.SHAPIRO1 Phil Shapiro

Sub: A2 Switch Interface
> Bill, I'm looking forward to getting the info you're sending about the
> creative stacks you've made.

I dropped a brochure in the mail today, Phil. You should get it in a couple of
days, depending on how many feet of snow fall between now and then. ;)

> I imagine there might be info in the material you send on where parents/ > schools might buy an Apple II Switch Interface.

No but plans for the A2 switch interface can be had pretty easily.
Basically, you can adapt any joystick to be a switch interface by adding inputs to the
fire buttons. The plans for the switch interface were also published in ][
Alive last summer (July/August issue, pages 49-51.) in my article entitled
"Switched On HyperStudio." There are several sources for buying the interface
commercially such as Don Johnston, Incorporated ($42.00, call 1-800-999-4660),
AbleNet ($36.00, call 1-800-322-0956) and Toys for Special Children ($41.00 &
$46.00, call 1-800-832-8697).

Now that I think of it, Phil, I uploaded a HyperStudio stack to the Apple II
libraries here on GEnie several years ago, called SIMTECH.01.BXY. It's file
#15531 and it includes plans on how to make the switch interface, a simple push
switch and a call signal. The plans for the interface call for using the Apple
II joystick extension cord which is no longer available from Radio Shack
(America's Technology Store). Instead, any straight through DB9 cable with male
plugs will substitute quite nicely.

If you like, you can list my address and if people are interested in the plans
I will send them a copy of the ][ Alive article (Jerry Kindall won't mind).

> (Is this interface different from the Adaptive Firmware Card?)

Very much so. It's a great deal less expensive, doesn't take up a slot and it's
much easier to use. However, if people already have and use the AFC they
needn't buy or make an additional switch interface since the AFC will
accommodate two switches in precisely the same way the A2 switch interface does
(i.e. emulating the joystick fire buttons or the and keys).

Cheers... Bill

Here's a brief description of Bill Lynn's work, in his own words. (Also sent to me via electronic mail.)

"A quick thumbnail sketch of what I do: I specialize in accessible software for kids with physical disabilities who use switches to access the Apple II, IIGS and Mac. These are all HyperStudio or HyperCard stacks that are programmed to respond to switch hits. Most programs require either an inexpensive Apple II Switch Interface or the more expensive Macintosh Switch Interface (or an adapted mouse will work on both platforms). Although these programs are not made specifically for kids who have autism I do believe it may be useful to some, particularly for those who perhaps could bang on a big panel switch but who might not be able to relate to the keyboard."

Bill Lynn can be reached at:

Bill Lynn
SimTech Publications
134 East St.
Litchfield, CT 06759
(203) 567-1173
GEnie: Bill.Lynn
America Online: StudioBill

Computer Options for the Exceptional: Barbara Couse Adams

Another independent Apple II software developer doing interesting work in the special needs field is Barbara Couse Adams. Along with developing HyperStudio stacks for persons with developmental disabilities, Ms. Adams also is an adjunct professor at the State University of New York.

Further information about her software can be obtained at:

Computer Options for the Exceptional
49 Overlook Rd.
Poughkeepsie, NY 12603
(914) 452-1850
America Online: barbCOE

Here is a brief description of the Independent Living Acitivities (ILA) HyperStudio stacks she has created: "Independent Living Activities (ILA) is a series of programs designed to provide developmentally disabled children and adults the opportunity to learn real-life practical skills. These programs were designed by special educators who were looking for activities which address everyday needs." The stacks require an Apple IIGS with 1 megabyte of RAM, and can work with either a mouse or TouchWindow.

The titles in the ILA series include: Community Signs, Functional Sight Words, Grocery Shopping, Hygiene Routines, Laundry, MacDonald's Menu, Identifying Money, Dialing the Phone, Telling Time, What's That Sound. Each title sells for $20 per disk. Demo disks for this series are available. The entire series sells of disks sells for $175. Note: You do not need to own HyperStudio to use this software. A HyperStudio run-time disk is available from this company for an extra $10.

A Few Suggestions for Contacting Smaller Software Publishing Companies

If you're interested in contacting Bill Lynn or Barbara Couse Adams (or any other smaller educational software publisher), you might keep in mind a few things to make communications easier. When requesting information from smaller publishing companies, it's always thoughtful to send five or six postage stamps to help defray their postage expenses. Also, when leaving a phone message on their answering machines, leave your home or weekend phone number, so they don't have to incur the cost of calling you during peak phone-rate periods. Even better, send electronic mail whenever possible.

One interesting facet about smaller publishing companies is that they're usually amenable to working on "custom-built" software. If you have a particular software program that you'd like made, you might try contacting some independent software developers to see how feasible it would be to make the software. Just keep in mind that many independent software developers usually work at other jobs as well, and might have family obligations.

Return to special needs computing menu.