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TeachTown: Where Autistic Kids Go to Learn

February 14 2011 | by

Cover of the TeachTown software box

What do you get when you cross these three people: A data analyst who has a son on the autism spectrum, a Chief Science Officer who is grounded in behavioral analysis studies, and the brainchild of the animated cartoon Rugrats?

TeachTown: Basics 2.0, that’s what. TeachTown bills itself as providing “exceptional activities for exception children,” and it largely lives up to its promise. Geared toward individuals in the age 2 to 7 developmental range with autism and other special needs, TeachTown offers more than 800 instructive on and offline lessons that are fine-tuned to the needs of those with autism, a complex neuro-developmental disorder defined by impaired social interaction and affected 1 out of roughly every 150 births.

TeachTown interface - a colorful valley with houses

PLATFORM FOR PARENTS
Split into six “learning domains,” the animated world of TeachTown and its inhabitants convey concepts like basic math skills, language development, and interpersonal and life skills. In practice, these areas translate into lessons designed to teach—among many other topics—the different types of weather, colors and color matching, patterns, telling time, sharing, body language and facial expressions, and indentifying a myriad of objects.

Yet TeachTown’s greatest asset may be as a platform for parents, teachers, and therapists to unite around a child’s developmental progress. In fact, with a subscription-based payment model ($39.95 monthly or $395 yearly fee), it is designed to be used both in the classroom and at home. The adult facilitator’s dashboard allows you to access a comprehensive log of past lessons, take notes, communicate with other facilitators that you can add, and review lesson plans.

Considering even the best computer software is no substitute for a live therapist or special education teacher, TeachTown’s ability to track performance, and even a child’s individual education plan (IEP), over time should serve as a springboard with which to discuss goals and areas of improvement.

GOING TO THE ZOO
TeachTown’s interface is so simple, it’s liable to make Google’s homepage look complex. Once the facilitator sets a prescribed session time, which can range anywhere from five minutes to an hour, TeachTown’s user interface takes over your screen—literally. Once you set a lesson time, TeachTown will not let you exit out of the program, a great feature if you are trying to get a child to focus; a drawback if you decide to change your mind after selecting an hour long session.

The first step in every session is choosing from one of five areas of the town, which loosely correspond to the type of activities you will receive. For example, choose the zoo and you will be asked to pick out an animal from a group. Each lesson serves as a series of trials broken into pre-test, training, and post-test sections that slowly build on one concentrated concept. Firmly grounded in the proven method of applied behavioral therapy (ABA), a scientific approach to understanding and shaping behavior, a correct answer results in positive verbal feedback, whereas an incorrect answer simply displays the correct answer without any auditory feedback.

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
Another great feature of TeachTown is that it is individually adaptive: get a series of answers incorrect and answer choices are either shaded out or eliminated until you are just left with the correct response; begin answering correctly and the answer choices are slowly added back in and un-shaded as you improve. When you get three to five answers correct, you receive your choice of one six of the randomly selected reward games, then you are directed back to the lesson. This concept of positive reinforcement is pulled straight from the ABA playbook and it translates well to the computer, minus the fact that you might need lightening fast reflexes. If you don’t choose an answer after about 30 seconds, the computer selects the correct options for you.

At the same time, graphics are pleasingly bright without being overwhelming (autism is thought to be partially characterized by hyper-sensitivity to colors and sounds), the characters are Katie Couric-perky, and the objectives for each level are straightforward and clear. Pixar quality this is not, but TeachTown is wonderfully pleasing and full of endearing, fun caricatures.

DREAM TEAM
Co-founded by Dan Feshbach, an analytics entrepreneur and parent of an autistic son, and Dr. Christina Whalen, a psychologist, consultant, and author who has run early autism intervention programs at the University of Washington, TeachTown completes what it describes as its “iron triangle” for success with CEO Terry Thoren, a former CEO of the production company behind animated hits like Rugrats and The Simpsons.

It’s hardly a wonder TeachTown has been snatching up grants from the National Center of Technology Innovation and the Department of Education for its research based brand of educational fun. Before snatching up your own copy, take note: TeachTown: Basics runs on Mac OS 10+ and Windows XP and 7 and is touchscreen compatible. All sessions require internet access.

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  • Valerie Chernek

    Great review! TeachTown just launched their social and behavior skills program which includes bullying prevention. Check it out.
    http://web.teachtown.com/educators_selectprod.php

  • S.I. Rosenbaum

    “brainchild of” means “thing invented by” not “inventor of.” Otherwise, great article.

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