Computer technology has transformed the lives of many people on the autism spectrum. In particular, the iPad has proven revolutionary by facilitating communication and learning for children whose verbal skills and sensitivity to sensory input may be very different from those of the general population.
“IPads are affordable, portable, and they can use a variety of apps,” said Jamey Wolff, Program Director at Center for Spectrum Services in Kingston. “For a child who has no oral language, there are apps that can provide voice output. A variety of apps have been created for different learning styles, and new ones are being developed all the time.”
Some apps allow a child to choose from an assortment of pictures to generate sentences that are spoken aloud by the iPad. Others teach social skills, from appropriate behavior in specific situations to how to read facial expressions.
Kelly Larson of Prattsville has come up with a new concept for computer keyboards that he hopes will provoke another leap forward for children with autism by engaging them in the learning process. The Alphious keyboard connects colors, sounds, and letters, which Larson believes will stimulate new pathways in the brain, enhancing comprehension and creativity. “It causes multiple levels of learning at the same time,” he said. “It will create a more solid thinking pattern for autistic kids.”
He has assigned each letter on the traditional QWERTY keyboard to a color and a position on the respective key — centered, upper right, lower left, etc. Each letter also corresponds to a musical note. The vowels have been assigned to middle-octave C, D, E, F, and G, with consonants connected to notes in higher octaves. The keyboard will be used with an app, still being developed, that will play the notes when the keys are pressed. Lower-case letters will result in tones from a Steinway, while upper-case will be ragtime piano.
The colors are important, said Larson, because they are linked to mental states and character traits. “Yellow activates the analytical brain,” he explained. “Orange makes us positive, green is harmonizing. When you have the colors in front of you, it makes the brain alert and gives you a lot to do. For kids, the attention span is going to be there. It’s good for retention, and it’s entertaining your brain. It gives you a happy brain.”
Alphious represents a total life change for Larson, a former tennis pro whose career included working as director of junior development at a Greenwich, Connecticut club owned by 1980s tennis superstar Ivan Lendl. When the club was sold, Larson was among the staff fired by the new owner. Soon after, he suffered a heart attack in his driveway. The near-death experience was transformative. “I was gone for about a minute and a half,” he said. “They flew me to Vassar, I had a triple bypass, and I woke up a different individual. I had a premonition from Steve Jobs.” He received the concept of “a spectrum of shapes representing colors, symbols, letters, and sounds.”
Since then, Larson has devoted his life to making Alphious a reality. He moved to Manhattan and hung out in Apple stores, playing with the computers as he developed his ideas. It took four years to come up with the design for the keyboard. “I received premonitions over and over,” he said, “always the same thing. I determined to dedicate my life to something, to give back.” When he remembered teaching tennis to autistic children in Greenwich, he had the insight that the keyboard would be valuable to kids on the spectrum, who flourish in response to the right approach.
“I found if you get down and look at them face-to-face, they love it,” he said. “If you say, ‘You’re fast as a horse,’ they don’t get it. But if you’re clear and direct, they’ll follow you.”
Larson has a few prototypes of the keyboard, which he showed to Wolff. He promised to give her an Alphious to use at the Center, once his product is ready for release. “He’s very passionate about it,” said Wolff, “and very thoughtful. It looks like a beautifully developed augmented communication device. It will be interesting to see how it works. People with autism are very different from one another. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for anything.”
Occupational therapist Rebecca Frank, who specializes in pediatrics, agreed that the keyboard probably would not be suited for all children with autism. “Kids on the autism spectrum may seek one type of stimuli, such as visual input, and avoid or be agitated by another, such as auditory input,” she remarked. “But it might turn out to have uses for other populations and in other settings.”
Although Larson is offering the Alphious system first to children with autism, he feels the principles are applicable for all learning. “If we’d been taught this system when we were growing up,” he said, “our IQs would be through the roof. There’s a world of color that we missed. I think the brain wants this.”
He believes the colors of the keyboard will stimulate the mind to generate creative ideas and thoughts. “If you use the keyboard to type a paper, you use your brain a little more,” he said, “but you get ten times back over what you would get on a regular keyboard.” His sons, who are not autistic, have used the keyboard and loved it, but Larson has not yet had an opportunity to try it out on children with autism, the group he most wants to reach. “There’s a lot of beauty in those heads, a lot of creativity,” he said. “There’s genius in those heads, if we could just tap into that.”