New pilot program using technology to help Md. students with aut - KMSP-TV

New pilot program using technology to help Md. students with autism to communicate

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SILVER SPRING, Md. -

It is certainly not a cure for autism, but there is a method being tested in a Maryland school system that is giving hope to some families.

Their kids are communicating for the first time ever. The parents of one young man say it is “life-changing.”

Jack Allnutt never learned to talk.

“Completely silent,” said his mother Amy. “Non-verbal his whole life.”

Jack is now 12 years old. He has shocked his family by communicating through typing.

“TV is making me nervous,” he typed.

Yes, our television camera filming him in his kitchen -- that is a little scary. We tell Jack that it's a pretty typical reaction.

In 2012, Jack's parents took him to a place called The HALO clinic in Austin, Texas. At first, he used stencil letters.

“Throughout the week, he got better and better, and at the end of the week, he typed, ‘I am really smart. I am really trying,'” said Amy.

“We were both blubbering, crying messes,” she added.

It turns out Jack is a smart kid locked inside a body that doesn't let him communicate.

“He started asking us questions about the stock market,” said his father Bob. “That's when we kind of knew he might have some capacity.”

What Jack is doing is called “facilitated communication.” Past research suggests that perhaps facilitators were influencing what children typed.

“It has not been proven to be an effective mode of communication, so approaching this particular pilot was one with tremendous amount of caution,” said Gwendolyn Mason, Director of Special Education Services for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Mason and Dan Hoffman, the county's chief innovation officer, were intrigued. Mason observed five boys, including Jack. One of them typed to her.

“What he stated was help me to find a school where I can learn,” Mason said. “That was pretty compelling for me and he did that independently.”

So last fall, Montgomery County started a pilot program. It is expensive. Each child needs a facilitator -- the way Amy helps Jack at home.

“In my opinion, it wasn't a 'nice to have,'” said Hoffman. “The ability to communicate is pretty inherent to your ability to learn.”

The students are out of special education and are now in a class with typical kids.

Does Jack like school now?

He typed, “Yes, school is finally challenging.”

Jack types that he wants to get married and become a stockbroker. But first, he has to walk the dog and tackle middle school.

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