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Video self-modeling helps autistic students

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Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009

Kylee Byron often was frustrated when playing games. The first-grader at South Park Elementary Center has autism and until recently had a problem waiting her turn when playing "Go Fish." That is, until she watched a DVD of herself waiting for a classmate to ask her if she had any sevens.

"She saw herself sitting down and taking turns," said Dawn Byron, Kylee's mom, of Carroll, Washington County. "Whether it's because of the experience or maturity, she is able to sit down for longer periods of time and only needs prompted occasionally. It's wonderful."

The South Park School District was one of two in the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to try a new technique last fall called video self-modeling, designed to improve social behavior in autistic children. The trial, which also included elementary schools in Woodland Hills, helped all participating students, though each improved at different speeds.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects brain function, impacting development in social interaction and communication. New approaches to teaching students with autism are needed, said Dan Torisky, president of the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and past president of the Autism Society of America.

The number of public-school students diagnosed with autism increased 510 percent between the 1997-98 and 2007-08 school years. The average cost to educate an autistic student is $18,790, at least $8,000 more than a student without a disability, according to the American Institute of Research.

The cost of video self-modeling is minimal, experts say. Teachers need to be trained in the technique and how to use the equipment, but they can use existing video cameras and editing software.

Allegheny County was a good place to test the technique. The county has 1,292 public-school students with autism, the most in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

"They pull this off, they reduce the costs of bringing in some of the other therapies," Torisky said. "This is a gentle intervention, and entertaining for the kids."

The concept is simple — record an autistic child prompted to perform a social skill properly, edit out the prompts and show the child footage of himself or herself performing the skill appropriately.

"This is a great technique," said Ann Huang, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Psychology and Special Education at Duquesne University's School of Education. "It's a very, very effective way of teaching children with autism the appropriate behaviors. We should be promoting this technique more in classrooms."

In January, Michelle Luvetsky and Erin Peterson, educational consultants with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit who headed the project, presented their findings at the Technology Reading and Learning Diversity conference in San Francisco. In November, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit hosted training on video self-modeling for special-education teachers throughout the county's 42 suburban school districts.

Autistic children respond best to visual information, Huang said. The edited video eliminates distractions — other students talking, noise from a heating vent or a flickering light bulb, for example — and allows students with autism to focus on their behavior as they watch it, Luvetsky said. The medium is one they already use for entertainment.

What makes video self-modeling workable in the classroom is the easy availability of necessary technology, Luvetsky said. During the training session, teachers were shown how to use a small handheld video camera the size of an iPod and use video editing software for both Apple and Microsoft platforms.

Bethel Park School District officials attended the training and are checking the feasibility of implementing the technique next year.

"This is a way for (autistic children) to learn how to respond in social situations," said Lori Sutton, Bethel Park's assistant director of special education. "It catches them being appropriate and gives them time to look at their own self and remember the steps in a process. It actually takes it to the students themselves."

Woodland Hills plans to continue using video self-modeling in the next school year, said Leslie Roberts, autistic support teacher at Edgewood Primary. South Park hopes to expand its program.

"I think it had a good effect on the students," Roberts said. "Viewing themselves on the computer, it leaves an impression. We aren't taking the teaching piece out, but just add this in. My vote is yes for the video model."

Additional Information:

Jazz concert

A benefit jazz concert is scheduled for late February to benefit Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization that funds autism research.

The concert of contemporary, classic and original jazz is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at Changing Seasons Learning Center in McMurray. The event will feature a Chinese auction and performances by Lee Robinson and jazz quartet ISKA.

Tickets are $10.

For more information, call 724-941-2182.




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