By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — There's new help for children with autism spectrum disorders — and their parents.
A new educational website created by Traverse City autism teacher Scott Jongekrijg went live Aug. 31 and already is racking up 250,000 to 1 million international reaches a week.
The interactive website, called Autism Unlocked, offers students with autism an animated conversation simulation with 24 levels of play; a "fun zone" loaded with animated games, video clips, music and a drawing pad; a "leveling system" that allows teachers and parents to have complete control over their student's or child's experience; and a tracking system that allows them to follow the student's or child's progress.
Jongekrijg said the website is both a learning and entertainment tool designed to engage autistic kids in a way other things don't.
"Kids with autism do not have age-appropriate leisure skills," he said. "This is good peace of mind for parents and teachers. The kids are occupied and hopefully they can learn to sit and do it on their own. And they're learning."
The website's "Talk to Learn" conversation simulation teaches communication, a skill with which autistic kids struggle. Kids practice basic conversation by typing responses to questions asked by animated characters. When they complete a level they're rewarded with time to play in the "fun zone."
"That concept of learning and being rewarded is very powerful," said Jongekrijg, who teaches 10-14 students in a self-contained classroom. "With some of these kids it's a war to get them to sit down and do something."
Jongekrijg said the idea for the website came out of talks with colleagues about the best way to teach communication and conversation. It also takes advantage of research that shows kids with autism respond to computers.
"Kids with autism are very visual. That's the way their minds work," he said. "They love computers. They're cool, and there's so much going on in these games. Because they like computers, it's the best way to have them sit down and do repetition. That's the only thing I've found that works."
Nicole Miller and her son, Scott Slater, 8, have used the website for about two weeks on a trial membership.
"There's something appealing about this website, whether it's the colors or content or characters," said Miller, of Buckley. "My son will sit for anywhere from an hour or more and that's not something that you can usually do with him. And you can mix up the characters every time. He gets to control it and he likes that.
"There's also a lot of repetition with this so he can process things over and over. That's not exactly something you can practice with your peers," Miller said.
Jongekrijg said the website is designed to be engaging without overwhelming the senses, another problem for kids with autism. It also teaches keyboarding skills and is especially helpful for lower-functioning kids, though most will need help using the site.
"A lot of autism websites are geared toward a particular level," he said. "There's not a lot out there for low-functioning students."
The website took a year to develop with the help of a business loan but is "just the tip of the iceberg," Jongekrijg said. He also envisions an iPad application, a social network that would offer kids with disabilities a safe place to chat, and an animated "social stories" theater to teach skills like getting ready for bed.
Autism Unlocked could be a boon for members of the Autism Resource Network of Northwest Michigan, a nonprofit that provides resources and support to families, communities and people with autism spectrum disorders.
President Andrea Hentschel uses the site with her son, Alex, 9, and said its greatest feature is its ability to draw him in.
"I'm interested in the website because social conversation is huge. It's probably his biggest hurdle," Hentschel said. "He wants to get the right answers to go on to the next level. He's gets mad when he doesn't, but he'll try again."
Annual website memberships range from $30 for a single user — the best option for home use — to $300 for a classroom of 6-25 students. For more information, visit www.autismunlocked.com.