As Professor Joanne Arciuli tells it, in 2020 these kids have had to adjust to an online environment just like everyone else because attendance at schools and clinics has been affected during the pandemic.
“It starts with the basics, just making sure the volume's right, the brightness on the screen, everybody's looking at the right thing at the right time, reducing distractions in the background,” she says.
Professor Arciuli is Dean of Research at Flinders’ College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Her specialty is human communication and much of her career has been focused on child development and disability, especially speech, language, literacy and the learning mechanisms underpinning that.
“For a long time people thought autistic kids must learn to read differently, and kids with Down syndrome must learn to read differently again,” Professor Arciuli says.
“People were searching for these disability-specific ways to help children acquire literacy skills. And then it turns out that, actually, there are really key aspects of literacy instruction that are good for all children.
“And, yes, some kids with developmental disabilities might show slower progress in their literacy acquisition or you might be able to tailor some of the content to their particular interests. That can be quite important with some autistic children in the way it helps with motivation.”
For several years, Professor Arciuli has been working with a freely available, computer-based literacy instruction program called ABRACADABRA.
She introduced it to one of her PhD students, and together they were the first to test the program with autistic children using one-to-one instruction in their own homes. It went well, but one-to-one instruction in family homes is quite labour intensive and not really scalable.
“A school approached me,” says Professor Arciuli, “and so we decided to do the ABRACADABRA program slightly differently.”