Conference Report - Nice, 1995.

Winter on the Cote d'Azur

It seems more than a month ago that Andrew and I were basking in the
sunshine in the south of France. The shivery English winter makes it seem a
world away. No, we had not gone there to emulate the Victorian nobility who
strolled along the Promenade des Anglais.  We were in Nice to attend the
international conference on 'Autism and Computer Applications'  organised by
Autisme France.

The two days of the actual conference were fairly packed so I will limit
myself to presenting a few highlights.

Rita Jordan, from the University of Birmingham, presented two papers on
computer assisted learning for individuals with autism and on using
computers to enhance communication skills.  She felt that there were many
advantages in using computers for autistic people:  the computer does not
react like a person, it is consistent and predictable and the child has a
high degree of control. It is also free from confusing social messages and
is infinitely patient. In addition by using a computer the problem solving
demands made on a child could be incresed in a gradual and controlled way.
Dr Jordan alluded to the possibility of manipulating images so as to
gradually build up an image of an angry person by adding angry eyes, mouth,
body posture etc. The computer can also be used as a communication tool,
ranging from the humble word-processor to speech synthesisers.
(Paradoxically the rather robotic voice produced by the latter may be more
accessible to some people with autism than the highly inflecte human
voice).  Moving on further, the computer can be used to remediate some of
the learning problems of autistic people.  Images from a still video camera
can fed into the computer and used to build up the sense of the person as an
'experiencing self'.  Also the computer mind might provide a bridge to
understanding the human mind.  Dr Jordan gave the example of a computer
database: you cannot retrieve information unless it has been put there. So
it is with humans.  I can't automatically expect you to know what I know.

Dr Jordan also gave several caveats against the unthinking use of computers
with people with autism.  One that struck a chord with me was that in many
schools the computer is used merely as a 'giant smartie' a reward for
children when they have completed other work or a way of keeping them quiet
without regard to the educational content of what they were doing.  I found
the ideas in Rita Jordan's two talks interesting, if in part already
familiar.  Unfortunately it seems that these proposals have not yet been put
into practical applications for use in schools.

Another British contributor with whom readers may be familiar is John
Swettenham.  His paper was entitled 'Can children with autism be taught to
understand false belief using computers.'  He described a study in which he
had attempt to teach the concept of false belief by using a computer-based
animated version of the Sally-Anne task.  The children with autism were
highly motivated by the computer task and did appear to learn how to solve
it. However it looks as if they were using a particular strategy applicable
to that particular task as the understanding did not generalise to other
theory of mind tests.

Many of the presentations seemed somewhat lacking in concrete illustration,
a shame when computers seem to be a highly visual medium.  This could not be
said of the talk given by Dorothy Strickland and Lee Marcus from the TEACCH
program in North Carolina.  Their topic was virtual reality and they had
videos of a study in which two autistic children were at first acquainted
with the technology - the first task was to get them to accept the
helmets! - and then taught how to how to walk atound in a virtual street
scene. Both children were able to do this and to respond to events in the
virtual world rather than the 'real' world.  The study was understaken as a
response to the mainly visual patterns of learning reported by many autistic
people.  Also the virtual environment can be gradually modified and
extraneous stimuli removed.

On a personal note - watching the video and hearing about VR made me feel
quite ill.  I'm not going to try it in a hurry.  I think practical
applications in this area are probably some way off.

The computer as a communication tool was much in evidence in a paper by Dr
Stefano Palazzi from Milan.  He is setting up a project to links families
with autistic members and autistic people themselves via electronic mail
using the Italian videotel system. Features will include an e-mail
newsletter, a database for getting useful information and the ability to
communicate quickluy and easily with others in a similar situation.  This
will enable families to offer each other practical and emotional support.
Dr Palazzi also expects that e-mail will actually increase communication
among people with autism as many have good writing skills and it is a medium
in which you don't have to deal with the multiple inputs of face to face
interaction.  It will be interesting to hear how this project develops.  If
our own experience of electronic mail is anything to go by it should be a
big success.

One of the high points of the conference for me was a contribution from Dr
Knabe, who is based in Geneva.  He has put together a multimedia package to
help young adults with autism living in a hospital environment to acquire
lifeskills.  We were shown an example of a young man learning to use the
telephone correctly.  On the screen was a  digitised picure of the actual
telephone he would be using.  In the top left hand corner instructions were
given by means of a videoclip of a member of staff the man knew well.
Various options were available: telephone engaged, answering machine, you
get through to your Dad.  In all these cases actual recordings of the
relevant sounds were used, including a recording of the young man talking to
his father.  Some of the instructions were also given using his father's
voice.  Using sound, screen text, video and still images, the autistic man
was able to learn to use the phone without panicking (as he had previously
done when he got the engaged tone).  The young man was able to make choices
by clicking with a mouse and simple word recognition was also brought in.

This type of appliction clearly has enormous potential with individuals of
all ages and abilities.  It was put together using commercially available
software but tailored to each individual.  I would love to see something
similar in use in British schools.

Overall the conference was a success, though it would have been nice to have
had more 'hands on equipment' available.  On the final morning there was a
more informal session where it was possible to discuss things in smaller
groups.  We would have preferred more of this as making contact with other
people can be the most fruitful part of conferences.  Unfortunately there
was no list of participants so we couldn't look out for people we might have
come across or heard of elsewhere.  We did however appreciate meeting people
with whom we had previously only had e-mail contact including the conference
organiser Paul Trehin.

There was a lot more than I've mentioned, including some sessions on
clinical applications which we didn't attend, so we were pleased that we
were able to buy a collection of the conference papers straight away.  This
should provide fascinating reading for some time to come.

We did also take a bit of extra time to make in into a short holiday.  We
enjoyed the sunshine and the good food and managed to take a trip along the
coast to Monaco.

Lesley Black

(First published in the newsletter of All Lewisham Autism Support, London,
UK in March 1995)