Virtual One-on-One Instruction for Autistic StudentsFeb 01, 2017 06:19PM ● By Makayla Gay
By Dana W. Todd
Photography ©2017 Brian Dressler / dresslerphoto.com
Karl Smith Jr. learned to both tie his shoes and read using software products called DT Trainer and Activity Trainer designed by his father. Karl Jr.’s parents and teachers were unsuccessful in teaching him these early skills usually easily grasped by elementary children without the challenges posed by Karl Jr.’s autism. His father, Karl Smith, a computer and electrical engineer, decided to put aside his corporate technology career to design a software program that would help his son gain these necessary skills.
“People may give up after a while, but software can provide the intensity and duration that humans don’t,” says Smith. “The brain is a phenomenally adaptive organ, but it takes intensity and duration to change the brain.”
The lifetime cost of a person diagnosed with autism ranges from $1.4 million to $2.4 million, according to a 2014 study funded by the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. Smith estimates that figure to be much higher for the most severe cases when children do not receive help early on in their lives, as costly as $3.5 million to $5 million per person. Autism Speaks leaders say the key to reducing this cost is through better access to quality early intervention, exactly the mission of the company founded in Columbia by Smith in 2000 named Accelerations Educational Software (AES).
A longtime student of cognitive behavioral psychology, artificial intelligence, and knowledge modeling, Smith combined these studies by designing several software products that help those with moderate to severe autism and other learning disabilities learn independently. DT Trainer, the “engine” that runs the software system, was the first product on the market in early 2000 and has been updated over the years to cover 260 different content programs from shapes, colors, and numbers to time, money, and math word problems. The Activity Trainer followed, which teaches students skills through video modeling. For example, videos make break down the shoe tying process into several mini videos such as one that teaches children how to cross the laces as a first step in tying shoes.
“Children with learning disabilities usually cannot watch a video or listen to a teacher to learn to do something; they need it broken down into smaller parts,” Smith says. “With autism, children also are missing fundamental learning skills. Group settings don’t work well; they all learn a lot more with individualized and appropriate instruction. [DT Trainer and Activity Trainer] are a micromanagement of the learning process. Students are learning and learning to learn,” Smith says.
Today, AES software runs in more than 1,100 public school districts as well as in private schools, individual homes, and some service providers’ offices that provide assistance to autistic children.
“We have worked with DT Trainer since 2001 and have a district license so all of our special education teachers are able to use the product if they choose,” says Jinni Friend, coordinator of special services for School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties. “Our teachers love the fact the DT trainer allows all students an opportunity for independent practice at a level they can be successful. Our teachers also like that DT Trainer keeps data to document the progress a student is making.”
The explosion of diagnosed cases of autism spectrum disorder has grown from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 68 children today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that almost half of children identified as having autism spectrum disorder are average or above average intelligence, but as Smith knows, learning styles are quite different from neurotypical children. His software addresses those differences and has met with much success in the school systems in which it now runs.
“The best customer compliment I ever received is that DT Trainer is a teaching machine on steroids,” Smith says.
In the future, Smith hopes to raise enough capital to focus on several additions to AES’s products. With the growth of autism experts and specialists, he feels there is an opportunity to exploit technology to enable them to remotely mentor teachers and impact many more students with autism. Smith would also like to add speech software to his product line. And lastly, he would like to delve into improving adult services through technology products, spurred on by what he sees is missing in services provided to those similar in age to his son, now grown up at age 22.
“We continue to evolve,” Smith says. “There’s a lot more we could do. We are helping tens of thousands of kids per year, but we could help millions.”