Here is the original citation for this article:

Rieber, L. P. (1995). Using computer-based microworlds with children with pervasive developmental disorders: An informal case study. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 4(1), 75-94.

Copyright 1995 Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Using Computer-Based Microworlds with Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders: An Informal Case Study

Lloyd P. Rieber

Department of Instructional Technology

The University of Georgia


This paper presents an informal case study of one child's interaction with several computer-based applications and microworlds. The child, diagnosed as having Pervasive Developmental Disorder resulting in multiple learning disabilities, has interacted extensively with a Macintosh computer since September, 1991. He has used several commercially available graphics packages as well as a series of specially designed software programs in the areas of language, mathematics, symbol manipulation, and general problem-solving. The child's case history is discussed both in general and in regard to his computer experiences. Examples of the instructional design and development of the customized computer microworlds, using rapid prototyping procedures, are also discussed.

This paper is about a child named Thomas. Thomas has significant developmental and behavioral disabilities that have presented him with unique challenges to learning, social interaction, and social acceptance. Consequently, he has great difficulty with the simplest of learning tasks. However, he is slowly finding an important ally in the computer. This paper tells the simple story of how Thomas and the computer have begun to work together as partners in cognition -- a story that continues to evolve.

This paper is written from a special point of view because I am Thomas' father. For this reason it is written from my background in instructional technology, not special education. Likewise, there is no pretense in trying to present this story in any objective way. My work with Thomas stems from an admittedly selfish base. However, it is hoped that many will find some value and relevance in this story despite the inherent bias. At the very least, it is hoped that this paper may cause some to reflect more deeply on how to celebrate the diversity in all people.

Thomas' story will be told through the computer software he uses. Some of the software (i.e. MacPaint, HyperCard, KidPix, The Playroom) have been commercially produced, whereas I custom built other software for him. It would not be accurate to say, though, that I designed the software for Thomas. In reality, he should be considered as a "co-designer" because the most successful software I've developed for him have been based on his unique abilities and interests. Either the software reaches Thomas on his level or it simply does not reach him. As a result, Thomas has taught me a great deal about software design. The purpose of this paper is to describe Thomas' progress and obstacles to understanding critical aspects of both general symbol manipulation and general computer operation. In Thomas' case, each has been wedded to the other.

The theoretical and philosophical basis for this project stems from a constructivist approach to learning that holds that knowledge or meaning cannot be imposed on someone, but must be constructed by each individual. Constructivist applications to education closely conform to the theoretical epistemology of Jean Piaget (though Piaget never considered himself an educator and was careful to shy away from discussions of pedagogy) (Piaget, 1952). A constructivist framework considers learning to be an active, participatory process. Learning is not viewed as merely acquiring "more knowledge," but rather as a continual reconstruction of what is already known (Bruner, 1986; Forman & Pufall, 1988; Fosnot, 1989; Jonassen, 1991). Likewise each person's knowledge about the world cannot be separated from the world (Goodman, 1984).

Constructivist views of learning conform to the inherent conflict described by the Piagetian principle of equilibrium (and the enabling processes of assimilation and accommodation) -- people strive for an organized world but continually need to adapt to an ever changing environment (Piaget, 1970). Consequently, an important assumption in constructivism is that knowledge or meaning cannot be "transferred" from one person to another but must instead be derived from one's own experiences. Therefore, the best kinds of learning are believed to be the result of access to a wide variety of experiences and resources coupled with the freedom to choose among them (Papert, 1993). The nature of these "experiences" is, of course, a source of conflict in education. The value and role of the most structured of learning experiences -- instruction -- is debatable. In Thomas' case, at least, instruction that relies more on explanation than experience is simply not a viable option. He is also not inclined to engage in any activity that is imposed on him. Fortunately, constructivists have proposed an interesting learning environment, called a microworld, that blends direct experience, interaction (individual and social), and personal choice (Dede, 1987; Papert, 1980; Papert, 1981). Microworlds are meant for all people, disabled or not, although they seem to offer special promise for Thomas.

A microworld is so named because with it people begin to "live" concepts and principles that they invent and discover, not just study information given to them by others (Rieber, 1992; Rieber, 1993). A microworld's domain can be very broad (e.g. a child's sandbox) or limited (e.g. LOGO's turtle geometry). Thomas' experiences with computer-based microworlds have likewise been diverse. His experiences can best be understood in terms of two general, but very special characteristics of microworlds (Rieber, 1994, April). First, a microworld should provide a learner with the "simplest case" of the domain, even though the best microworlds allow the learner to reach to the most sophisticated levels of the domain. Second, a microworld must match the learner both cognitively and affectively. The result of these two characteristics is that the learner knows what to do with the microworld almost immediately plus feels compelled to explore the microworld based on personal motives.

Finally, a constructivist view reconsiders the relationship between learning and evaluation. While not discounting entirely the need for predetermined learning outcomes in education or establishing "what has been learned," constructivists much prefer to focus on outcomes that naturally emerge from the learning experience (Papert, 1987). Therefore, it is much more important to understand why Thomas chose to engage in these microworlds and how he used them to achieve his own goals rather than focus on what he learned as a result of and apart from these experiences. Such a view is probably best summed up by the saying that "life is a journey, not a destination." Consequently, the account presented in this paper places much more emphasis on Thomas' "journey" than any final "destination."


At the time this project began, Thomas was 9 years old (he was born in 1982). He had exhibited several severe learning disabilities from about the time he was one year old. In addition, he exhibits both severe developmental delays resulting from language disorders (e.g. form, content, and function uses of language) and speech disorders (e.g. articulation), though it would be misleading to suggest that the two areas are independent of each other. Most developmental psychologists agree that language processes play a central role in intellectual development, though the issue of whether language determines intelligence or visa versa is still widely debated (Piaget believed the latter).

Thomas has difficulty with even the simplest intellectual skills, such as making simple discriminations. His reading skills are limited to recognition of only several letters and a few sight words. His mathematical skills are confined to simple counting from 1 to about 5, though he does so apparently from rote. His construction of number theory usually seems limited to 0, 1, 2, and many. Thomas' writing ability is limited to crude representations of only a few letters and numbers. The only word he is able to write with accuracy is his nickname -- "Tom." Thomas is severely deficient in some of the most fundamental cognitive abilities that we all take for granted -- simple language, simple mathematics, and basic social skills. Therefore, his view of the world is likewise limited. His "knowledge" seems completely tied to specific situations and tasks with general transfer severely limited.

Thomas also exhibits behavioral disorders. He typically goes through periods of intense frustration and aggressive behavior for days at a time. Occasionally, he will experience a severe episode where he can no longer control himself and he will seem filled with rage. These are obviously very difficult periods for our family (we also have a daughter who is three years older than Thomas). We are beginning to see a correlation between these extreme episodes and times of general stress in the family, such as very busy times, inconvenient travel schedules, and moving. In contrast, Thomas appears to most people as a very sweet child otherwise, though his responses and behaviors to simple social interactions often appear odd and confusing to people, especially strangers. He also has a very good sense of humor. Though it may be an oversimplification and too speculative at this point, we have noticed that Thomas' most disruptive behavior is often tied to times when he does not have control over a situation, whether due to an inability to comprehend what is going on or due to physical limitations (such as going on long car trips).

From a pure Piagetian perspective, Thomas' developmental level appears to be somewhere in the preoperational range. For example, Thomas is just beginning to develop temporal abilities that extend beyond to something happening the next morning or the next day. Thomas shows no sign of being able to conserve, though it is difficult to test Thomas because of his language comprehension disabilities. Thomas is almost entirely ego centered. He seems to view the world only in terms of how it affects him, a typical characteristic of this stage.

After receiving extensive clinical evaluations, he was diagnosed as having pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). In addition, he has been diagnosed as having attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). PDD is a general description given to individuals exhibiting a wide range of developmental disabilities (Brown & Reynolds, 1986) and is defined as children "in which many basic areas of psychological development are affected at the same time and to a severe degree" (Association, 1987, p. 34). This term is most often used to classify individuals whose learning disabilities do not easily fit other existing taxonomies, though PDD is usually grouped together with autism (but even on this point there is wide disagreement) (Bullock, 1992). People with PDD have learning problems that are related to a multiple of factors. The term PDD is used to describe a disorder that is simply not yet well understood. As is typical, a label often precedes understanding, but with it comes the risk that some will substitute the label for understanding.

Despite these extensive developmental and behavioral challenges, Thomas has many talents and aptitudes. He is musically inclined -- he shows a good ear for melodies and lyrics and is particularly fond of musicals. He has memorized melodies and lyrics for entire songs (even though he has been unable to memorize individual letters of the alphabet in this way). He has very good visual skills. Drawing is one of his favorite pastimes. He demonstrates a natural ability to coordinate colors (e.g. he chooses his clothes carefully with matching or complementary colors). He is also becoming very adept at operating a Macintosh computer, an ability on which the rest of this paper is based.

In September, 1991, various computer activities were introduced into Thomas's home school curriculum. (See Footnote 1.) Thomas has been given on average approximately two hours of structured computer time each week in a university setting combined with casual access to a computer at home, resulting in approximately 10-15 hours of computer interaction per week on a continual basis. Thomas has extensively explored the graphics capabilities of several simple packages such as MacPaint, KidPix, and HyperCard. In addition, several computer-based activities were specifically designed to give Thomas simple and structured experiences in language and mathematics. These customized materials, designed and developed using rapid prototyping methods, have been in the areas of simple mathematics, letter recognition, shape recognition, general symbol manipulation (e.g. meaning of arrows), and left/right differentiation. Other goals of the materials were to improve Thomas's general cognitive skills (e.g. increasing his ability to selectively attend to components of a task), to establish a meaningful context for interacting with language and mathematics, to increase his self-esteem and self-efficacy, and to increase his ability to work independently.

The computer is becoming an ever increasing ally in Thomas's intellectual repertoire. He has entered into what some call "cognitive partnerships" with the computer (Salomon, Perkins, & Globerson, 1991). His skills and abilities are closely aligned with the capabilities of the computer. Just as a normally functioning person still relies on the media of pencil and paper to supplement memory limitations, Thomas has begun to rely on the computer for many of his intellectual achievements.

The First Encounters

Thomas' first computer experience was with Kids on Keys, an older letter recognition package on an IBM-compatible computer that uses animation in a drill and practice format. The user must find and press the letter on the keyboard corresponding to an animated letter slowly "falling" on the computer screen. If the user is successful, the computer graphically "zaps" the letter. Thomas enjoyed the game despite a complex interface that frequently interrupted his play. For example, after correctly "zapping" a certain number of letters, the computer prompts the user to proceed to the next level. Early on, this always required adult intervention, although interestingly, Thomas quickly learned to imitate the key press procedure. Still, the package always required some adult intervention at some point. The package also did not contain any audio elements, so Thomas was learning only to discriminate on the letter shape, not the letter name. Given these limitations, I decided to custom design a similar package for Thomas.

The software I designed, called Letter Match, also had letter recognition objectives similar to Kids on Keys. However, the other intent also was to familiarize Thomas with software using a mouse interface, specifically the concept/procedure of "aim and click." This second goal turned out to be the real value of Letter Match because the primitive mouse skills that Thomas achieved with Letter Match became the building blocks for interacting with all of the other software described in the rest of the paper. Thomas is now very versatile with the mouse interface and uses the mouse as an "extension of self" like any other Macintosh or Windows user.

Letter Match begins with a digitized picture of myself followed by the audio message "Hi, Tom! Point and click on my picture to begin." The audio message is repeated after about 20 seconds. When successful, the audio message "Thank you!" is given and the software proceeds to the letter recognition task. All other input is ignored by the computer. The letter recognition task uses only the keyboard, just like Kids on Keys. After three successful letter matches, the software branches back to the mouse activity using my picture. At first, I had to help Thomas with the point and click task by guiding his hand and finger on the mouse. By the end of the first session, he was able to perform the task alone with only limited intervention.

The software then repeats this procedure until the someone quits the software using a pulldown menu option, a skill he has now completely mastered although it is not clear whether he has developed a rudimentary sight word vocabulary to include "Quit" or simply uses the spatial arrangement (i.e. last word on list) to make the correct choice. Fortunately, "Quit" was the only choice in the pulldown menu in Letter Match.

Thomas still chooses Letter Match on a periodic basis, though I speculate it is just for sentimental reasons -- he visits the scene of some exciting discoveries that became starting points for his other computer adventures.

Learning to Recognize, Understand, and Manipulate Abstract Symbols

After a few sessions with Letter Match, I introduced Thomas to MacPaint, one of the simplest graphics packages on the Macintosh, with the hope that his graphical interest and ability would intrinsically motivate him to turn the computer into a graphical "construction set." His "aim and click" skills were sufficient to allow him to begin drawing. Early on, even though his fine motor skills with the mouse were quite poor, this did not seem to interfere. He seemed more interested in the "phenomena" of making lines and scrawls on the computer screen than drawing any recognizable picture. I also introduced him to MacWrite, a simple word processor, but he showed absolutely no interest with it. Even now, for whatever reason, when he is working on the computer he continues to avoid most uses of symbolic language, such as letters, words, and sentences.

For the first few months, his computer experiences were limited to MacPaint and Letter Match. He chose to split his time fairly evenly between the two. When working with MacPaint, Thomas relied on me to first choose the "large paint brush" tool from the program's tool palette. At first, he was completely unaware of any other function. Interestingly, he quickly identified the interesting and unexpected goal of filling up the entire screen as though he were painting a wall. When he achieved this for the first time, I changed the pen pattern from black to a light shade of gray. He proceeded to paint over the entire screen again using this new pen shade. The goal of painting the entire screen, with varying pen patterns and shapes, became his primary "mission" when working with MacPaint.

When working with MacPaint, he never showed any overt understanding of how a screen symbol, such as the "eraser," would change the function of the mouse. However, anytime I intervened to change tools for Thomas, I was always careful to describe what I was doing. For example, after filling up the screen, I would ask him if he wanted to erase it. If he said yes, I would say, "OK, I'll click on the eraser" while demonstrating it for him. He would then take over the mouse and begin erasing. Obviously, Thomas was very dependent on me in his use of MacPaint at this time. His standard routine was to draw with one tool and then ask for help to change to another tool.

Thomas' first real breakthrough occurred about six months later when he made the discovery of how to choose a different graphical tool for himself. This conceptual understanding is necessary for successful interaction with even the simplest software programs. It is easy to take for granted the conceptual leap that is necessary in understanding how one input device such as the mouse can assume multiple functions. While it might take a normally functioning 10 year old child only minutes to form this concept, it took Thomas six months.

This breakthrough enabled Thomas to begin exploring other computer environments in purposeful, self-directed ways to achieve goals he valued. The rest of this paper will consider how he appropriated the technology to fit his needs and expectations while being engaged in authentic experiences in many contexts and domains, including mathematics, spatial manipulation, and language. In other words, this breakthrough enabled him to become a "citizen" of several computer-based microworlds. MacPaint was soon replaced with the graphical environment of HyperCard. Interestingly, Thomas quickly made other breakthroughs, such as learning how to access tool and pattern palettes in HyperCard by "tearing" them off of the menu bar and the placing them just where he wanted them.

Adventures with KidPix

Based on Thomas' success with MacPaint and HyperCard, I introduced him to a very creative and imaginative graphics package for children called KidPix. This, by far, is Thomas' most favorite computer activity. Like MacPaint and HyperCard, Thomas uses KidPix to create graphics, though with color and with tools that also offer interesting sound effects (such as the sounds of a pencil "scratching" against paper and a very "liquidy" sounding paint bucket.)

There are two activities that dominate Thomas' time in KidPix. The first activity, called "hidden picture," is built into KidPix. "Hidden picture" is a special erase feature where one uses the eraser to uncover a picture hidden "below." Thomas has spent so much time with this feature that he is able to identify the picture soon after the first details emerge. The second activity is an original creation by Thomas. Thomas first draws random lines all over the screen with the pencil tool. He then quickly changes to the fill bucket tool. Then carefully and methodically, he fills in each small space with paint until the entire screen is virtually covered, similar to a variation of his "paint a wall" goal with MacPaint. Interestingly, he has extraordinary fine motor control and can "aim" the fill bucket to pour paint into spaces that are only a few pixels wide. Thomas seems to find this activity exceedingly relaxing.

It is interesting to note how Thomas' "paint a wall" and "paint bucket" activities are not only original and creative, but also uniquely suited to the computer. That is, these two activities can not be easily replicated in another medium. Even the "hidden picture" activity within KidPix takes unique advantage of the computer's graphical processing capability. Apparently, Thomas' first conception of how to use this graphic environment was not to merely mimic what he had been doing with paper and pencil. At the time, Thomas' paper and pencil drawings were very crude. There were few recognizable shapes, though a person's face was a common part of his drawings. He only drew a straight line for a mouth making for a rather expressionless face. However, at one point he began to draw his faces with smiles. Coincidentally (or not), this occurred shortly after the start of his home schooling. He has only recently begun to focus attention on drawing body parts and other "props" (e.g. he's fond of drawing hats and neckties). It is also only recently that he has duplicated many of his paper and pencil drawings on the computer. He is also just beginning to understand the concept of printing (i.e. the connection or relationship between the images on the screen and paper). His graphical skill seems about the same with the mouse on the computer screen as it does with paper and pencil. (See Footnote 2.)

Custom Designed Software: Toward Microworlds

All of Thomas' experiences with KidPix, MacPaint, and HyperCard were worthwhile. He was engaged in imaginative play using a variety of tools and he was continually learning new tools as well as new ways to use old tools. On the other hand, his experiences were quite haphazard and there was little opportunity for him to explore many fundamental concepts of language and mathematics. There were also some basic skills that he was having much difficulty with, such as the concept of direction and discriminating between left and right. In response, I began to develop some activities for Thomas in which he would be less likely to become distracted by a myriad of functions and tools. The design methodology I used was really a hybrid of all my design knowledge, though the methodology of rapid prototyping comes closest to describing it.

Rapid prototyping is a design philosophy based on the assumption that design, development, and implementation are intertwined and interdependent (Rieber, 1994; Tripp & Bichelmeyer, 1990). In other words, the design of instruction must be shaped by its use and the user. Rapid prototyping designs with the learner, instead of for the learner. For this reason, Thomas should be considered a "co-designer" of the activities I created. Consequently, the goals of the activities often emerged based on how Thomas reacted to them. Rapid prototyping seems consistent with the design of microworlds. However, I also tempered the design further with features and characteristics from other interactive formats, such as gaming (see Rieber, 1994, April, for an extended discussion of blending the characteristics of microworlds, simulations, and games). The computer authoring tools at my disposal allowed me to quickly develop a prototype to try out with Thomas in order to discover if the idea was worth pursuing or abandoning. All of these activities were created in a very short period of time, usually less than two days, and fine tuned based on Thomas' success, interests, and frustrations. The software will be briefly described in the next sections.


Sour Apple

Sour Apple is a mathematics game to help Thomas develop basic number theory. The goal of the game is simply to eat all of the apples. As shown in Figure 1, the game is played by clicking on the numbers one, two, or three. When one of the numbers is chosen, the number name is spoken by the computer and the appropriate number of apples are "eaten" (i.e. each shrinks to a vanishing point at their center). An important feature occurs towards the end of the game. If one chooses "3" or "2" when fewer apples are actually left, the computer says matter of factly "But there are only two [or one] apples left!" while displaying this text on the screen. When all the apples have been "eaten," the computer says "You ate all the apples!" again with the text displayed on the screen. The decision to display the corresponding text was based on trying to reinforce the concept that written symbols (i.e. words) carry meaning.

Figure 1. Snapshot of the screen at the start of Sour Apple.

Though Thomas chooses to play Sour Apple on a regular basis, he rarely plays it for extended periods of time. He will usually play one or two rounds and then quit to choose something else. His typical strategy is to choose to eat only one apple at a time. He only occasionally chooses to eat two apples and he rarely chooses three apples. The original inspiration for Sour Apple came from a classic math game called Poison Apple which I had transferred to the computer about ten years ago (though I preferred to call it "sour apple"). I played the game with Thomas once and although it was filled with prompts and messages that he found confusing and annoying, he continually asked to play the game again. Consequently, I designed this version to meet his request and expectations.

Shape Art

This is one of Thomas' favorite games. There are many purposes to Shape Art, including spatial manipulation, language based on sight word vocabulary, and simple problem solving which stresses part to whole reasoning. Shape Art builds on Thomas' graphical interests and abilities by allowing him to draw pictures. However, instead of drawing with a pencil or brush one draws pictures with the three basic shapes of circles, squares, and triangles. As shown in Figure 2, there is a "well" of a limited supply of these three basic shapes on the bottom of the screen. One must click, hold, and drag one of the shapes to any location on the screen, a skill which Thomas, surprisingly, had little difficulty mastering. Thomas has the choice of drawing with the figures on a blank screen or choosing a "picture outline" corresponding to the buttons on the right side of the screen. When a button is pressed, the computer pronounces the word on the button, such as "train," and an outline of a train appears. The pictures can all be made by combinations of the three basic shapes. Thomas enjoys moving the appropriate shapes into their respective places. In addition, the parts to whole problem has a puzzle-like quality that Thomas seems to enjoy. One feature of Shape Art that Thomas particularly enjoys is the "Clean up" button. Its function is to put all of the shapes back to their original positions (using animation) and also erasing the screen.


Figure 2. Snapshot of the screen during Shape Art.

One intended goal of Shape Art is to provide Thomas with an interesting environment in which he can explore simple language, again in the hope that he will associate printed words with meaning. A future goal is to find activities in which Thomas can build a sight word vocabulary through meaningful interaction with single words. Part of this motivation is due to Thomas' inability to make any sense of a phonics approach to language. The use of a heavy phonics approach even with normally functioning children is continually debated among language educators (Just & Carpenter, 1987; Schickedanz, 1990; Smith, 1985; Smith, 1988; Stahl & Miller, 1989). In Thomas' case, phonics has become a psychological obstacle which I speculate is based on his frequent failure in the public schools. Thomas seems to "turn off" or "tune out" any attempt to teach phonics.

Treasure Hunt

The purpose of this activity, as illustrated in Figure 3, was to provide Thomas with a "left vs. right" microworld. The microworld is presented in a game-like context based on the fantasy of pirate treasure. This context was chosen based on Thomas' fondness at the time for the movie "The Goonies." When the graphic of either hand is clicked, the computer says either "left" or "right" and the boat moves one step toward that direction. The most obvious goal is to maneuver the boat toward the treasure at the bottom while also avoiding the pirates (as indicated by the "cross bones" flag) or sea monster. The graphics of the treasure, pirate flag, and sea monster are placed at random locations at the start of each round of the game. Of course, another goal might be to aim the boat toward the pirate or monster. In either case, the value of the interaction remains the same. This activity was a short-lived favorite with Thomas. Though he interacted with he often at first, he rarely chooses it anymore. His interest in the fantasy context has apparently dwindled. Of course, he hasn't watch the movie lately either, so perhaps that might trigger renewed interest in this game.

Figure 3. Snapshot of the screen during Treasure Hunt.


Tom's Train

The inspiration for this activity was setting up a toy train under the tree one Christmas. Thomas enjoyed playing with the toy train and learned to adequately master its controls. After Christmas, the train was put away. Afterwards, Thomas often asked to play with the train. But since it took so much effort to set up coupled with it needing an excessive amount of floor space in our tiny house, there was little incentive to bring the train out. I decided that the train might be a good fantasy context for Thomas based on his interest. My goals for this activity were very fuzzy, though two goals dominated my thinking early on. The first was that I wanted an activity in which Thomas would have to think several steps ahead to accomplish a task. Such ability to plan for the future is critical in problem-solving. Keeping one future task in mind while performing another task is trivial for most children of Thomas' age and adults but very difficult for Thomas. The second goal was to continue to encourage Thomas to recognize meaning from abstract symbols.

The activity begins by having a trolley-like train enter the track. The motion of the train can be controlled two ways: first, by changing the direction that the trolley will take when arriving at any of the several gates; second, the speed of the trolley can be controlled as well, though this function has never been recognized by Thomas. In Thomas' first experience with an earlier prototype, there was no clear goal to the activity other than watching the train go around the track. This was of little interest to Thomas. I quickly developed a second prototype, as shown in Figure 4, in which I added "tunnels." We had played with makeshift tunnels with the real toy train at Christmas, so Thomas was familiar with the concept. In addition, he really enjoys going through tunnels when driving in a car. He first saw the second prototype by watching me first play the game. I immediately said that I wanted the train to go through the tunnel and he immediately found this goal interesting enough to want to pursue.


Figure 4. Snapshot of the screen during Tom's Train.

I was amazed how difficult Thomas found the task of relating the abstract symbol of an arrow head indicating "future direction" in this game. Fortunately, he persevered and continued to experiment, haphazardly at first. Of course, if one studies Figure 4 for a moment, it is clear that there are two gates that must be changed to get the trolley to go through the tunnel. Thomas finally succeeded in this fairly complex task. Interestingly, he will now choose this program, quickly make the trolley go through the tunnel, and then quit the program. This activity is ripe for adding other goals and tasks, such as picking up and dropping off passengers.


This is the most recent activity I have developed for Thomas. Its goal is to establish a highly motivating context for Thomas to explore written language. As per the activity's title, its theme is the movie of the same name and it was chosen simply because it is one of Thomas' most favorite movies. Using Apple's QuickTime video protocol, key scenes were digitized. The scenes I chose were based on my interaction with Thomas as he watched the movie -- these were some of the scenes he found most memorable (see Figure 5). All of the scenes but one are highly verbal with dialog that Thomas "absorbed" from watching the movie, such as Bill Murray's "He slimed me!"

When any of the four scenes are chosen, the entire scene is played using both video and audio. This is followed by the lines of dialog appearing to the side of the video window, which, when clicked, cause the video and audio corresponding to that line to be played. The other option is to interact with the scene through the slide bar at the bottom of the video window. The goal here was to provide a highly motivating reason to interact with the text lines again with the hope to promote the concept that print carries meaning.

Interestingly, at the start Thomas seemed to avoid all of the printed words. In fact, though Thomas has played Ghostbusters for about six months he is just beginning to interact more frequently with the text. In contrast, he quickly learned (by the end of the first session) how to manipulate the QuickTime controls to play the scene over and over, frame by frame, and backwards. Again, he does not interact with this activity for very long, preferring instead to sample it for brief periods. So far, he is focusing on key phrases and his most favorite to date is Dan Ackroyd's "Actual physical contact!"

There are still a few problems with the design of the interface. For example, Thomas gets confused about the need to press a "continue" button after viewing one scene to go back to the option to view any of the four scenes. The problem is with the software, not Thomas, and this needs to be changed.

Figure 5. Snapshot of the screen during Ghostbusters.

Adventures in The Playroom

One of Thomas' recent birthday presents was another commercial product called The Playroom. The package has a series of activities which one chooses from the organizing graphic suggested in its title, a child's play room. The activities include simple math games, telling time, developing a "survival" sight word vocabulary, beginning letter sounds, a letter and word recognition activity resembling word processing, plus an assortment of other amusing activities. A particularly good feature of The Playroom is that it lends itself to creative exploration. One is rewarded by trying new things, though it is always easy to return to the "playroom" from an activity by clicking on the graphic of a "connecting door." Thomas' interest in The Playroom rivals that of KidPix; he spends about 80% of his computer time between these two packages with the remainder spent on the software I custom designed for him. A special cartoon character called "Pepper Mouse" is a central figure in most of the Playroom's activities (a small stuffed version of Pepper Mouse came free with the software). Thomas refers to The Playroom as "peppa mus."

There are too many activities in The Playroom to describe here, so only his favorite activity, "The ABC Book," will be briefly discussed. This activity uses beginning letter words (such as "U" for "unicorn") in a variety of fantasy contexts (such as a fairy tale castle, a barnyard, and a city street). When the user chooses any letter of the alphabet, the computer pronounces the letter and corresponding word and then "attaches" a picture of the word to the mouse. The user can move the picture around the screen and "deposit" it anywhere by clicking. Thomas spends extended periods of time interacting with this one activity alone. It has been among the most successful activities yet for Thomas in which language has been embedded in creative fantasy play.

"The ABC Book" is a good example of an activity that aptly balances predetermined design goals (e.g. beginning letter sounds) with those that emerge from the user's interaction. When engaged in the activity, Thomas has clearly defined goals, such as wanting to place a police officer on the street or a scarecrow by a barn. To do this, he must deal with an interface of rows of letters corresponding to the beginning sounds of these objects (e.g. p and s). The beginning letters are not ends unto themselves, but are doorways to achieve his goals. In the "ABC Book," Thomas' goals take priority, but the computer assists him while also incidentally helping to achieve a goal valued by the educational system (i.e. learning beginning letter sounds).

Thomas as Navigator

One of the most interesting skills that Thomas has acquired is navigating effortlessly between software applications on the Macintosh desktop. It is hard to describe how this occurred and there is no magic "instructional plan" to share to make it happen with other children like Thomas. Over the course of the last three years, Thomas has just slowly assimilated simple strategies to achieve his "grazing" between all of the software at his disposal. Early after his cognitive breakthrough in understanding how graphical symbols could change the function of the mouse, he began to pay closer attention to how I would intervene to solve unexpected problems. For example, when working with MacPaint, he would sometimes accidentally cause a dialog box to appear. The user is expected to make choices or changes and then click on an "OK" button, at which time the user is returned to the application. Thomas apparently learned incidentally a rule like "When in doubt, click OK," perhaps by watching how I intervened to solve the problem.

This example and others were probably due to my care in always verbalizing my actions even though I never forced Thomas to pay attention. I would talk through my "double-clicking," "Quits" and "Shut downs." Thomas eventually picked these up not because he was taught these techniques, but because he was part of the computer culture and eventually these became relevant and useful to him. These techniques became authentic tasks for Thomas because they were the "secrets" to controlling the computer for his own use. I am sure that Thomas' understanding of these techniques remains vague, but that is really beside the point. His understanding of "double-click to open" for example is probably closer to "click repeatedly until something happens." Fortunately, all Macintosh software reacts consistently to these techniques and rarely "punishes" users who do not have precise understanding. Being vaguely right is good enough.

A Matter of Control

It is difficult to distill features that comprise Thomas' most successful everyday experiences, though his time with the computer is the most prominent example. In fact, there are very few other experiences in which Thomas seems to exhibit the same level of satisfaction. Other examples include pouring himself a glass of soda, fixing a peanut butter sandwich, riding his bike at the park, drawing with pens and markers, and imaginative play with certain toys. These are not general examples, but the "long" list of specific activities in which Thomas excels. The closest common denominator to these activities, I believe, seems to be that Thomas feels totally in control. He is expected and able to exercise complete freedom in how he chooses to explore these environments.

When Thomas is working on the computer, he is in charge. His success in navigating around the Macintosh desktop to begin and quit activities has fueled the tendency to take other chances to learn new commands and functions. He has also been rewarded for his exploration. When working with the computer, I believe that Thomas considers himself to be combination of tinkerer, inventor, explorer, and trailblazer. This is his medium not only for expression, but also for risk taking. Another software package that Thomas has greatly enjoyed that has likewise encouraged a playful, exploratory attitude is the "living book" called Just Grandma and Me, in which the "Little Critter" book by Mercer Mayer comes alive through animation and sound on the computer. There is wonderful irony in knowing that Thomas finds comfort and confidence in a machine that often threatens and intimidates other normally functioning adults.


It is unclear whether any of Thomas' learning with the computer will transfer to other situations. This is the question I am most frequently asked. For the moment, this does not seem very important. What is important is that he is learning and finding the computer to be an engaging medium. It is also important that all of Thomas' learning is necessarily incidental, though admittedly there is external intervention, or "scaffolding" (Bruner, 1986), on my part to provide him with custom designed microworlds. Despite this external guidance, his learning remains incidental because he controls what he explores and what the goal of the interaction will be. I do not believe, for example, that he plays "Sour Apple" to learn about simple counting and number theory, though why he does choose to play it is unclear. He may just enjoy watching the apples disappear or perhaps he simply finds satisfaction in completing a task. I wish I had more insight to his behavior, but I am satisfied by his satisfaction.

Also unclear is where Thomas' abilities end and the computer's abilities begin as they interact with one another. I feel that their cognitive partnership is a concept worth reflecting upon. Thomas is engaged in what Salomon and Globerson (1987) have called "mindfulness" -- deliberate, thoughtful, and challenging activity which requires much effort. Some might call this "work." Though the term has many negative connotations, those adults who love their work understand that there is little that can give them more satisfaction, despite how difficult it may be, no matter what occupation or profession it may involve. This is the kind of work that Thomas is engaged in. Whether or not Thomas will find a way to channel his mindful work to become an independently functioning adult in society remains to be seen.

Ironically, Thomas's difficulties in meeting the expectations of society (including the educational system) is both his greatest liability and his greatest asset. On one hand, the people who matter most in Thomas's life are concerned about his future. As Thomas' parents, my wife and I worry about the possibility of his lifelong dependence on us. We also worry that we are not giving enough attention to our daughter. As Thomas grows older, we realize it is a distinct possibility that he will never be able to function apart from us or professional caretakers. Thomas' many classroom teachers over the years had have a wide range of concerns as well. Many, if not most, have worried about his lack of academic progress and socialization skills. The most well intentioned have focused on "survival" skills, such as crossing streets and grocery shopping, to increase Thomas's ability to function independently in society. The least well-intentioned have tolerated Thomas at best and belittled him at worst, unashamedly bringing to the surface the extent of his differences. It is tempting to say that Thomas does not know how as yet to "fit in" to society and the classroom. However, it may be more accurate to say that society and the classroom do not "fit in" with Thomas. So, on the other hand, Thomas may not feel as shackled by the demands of society either because he is not aware of it, does not recognize it, does not comprehend it, or perhaps, does not accept it. Thomas's intellectual and social functioning still remains virtually ego centered and it is unclear whether he will ever be able to empathize with others. In some respects, this is a very enviable position. Society's demands have not reached Thomas as yet, and perhaps they shouldn't.

The most recent progress Thomas has made has been social in nature. Slowly over the past year, he has showed clear signs of seeking other children his own age with which to interact. He is attending public school again and, so far, all is going very well. Reasons for this progress are difficult to pinpoint. Fortunately, several important attributes are working in Thomas' favor. He seems to value interaction with other children and is less inclined than ever before to engage in behavior that may jeopardize this interaction. However, the nature of the interaction remains quite fragile. Fortunately, his teacher's personality seems a perfect match for Thomas' plus she has clearly taken much time and effort to try to understand him. She deserves much credit for promoting a classroom where mutual respect is the rule and for providing social and intellectual experiences derived from the children themselves. The cognitive "awakening" that Thomas is experiencing through his partnership with the computer is being matched by a similar social "awakening" (some argue in favor of the Vygotskian view that cognitive and social aspects of learning cannot be separated; see Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer, & Scott, 1994, for a recent discussion). He seems to be in the process of exploring his relationship with society. What seems to be most crucial is that he has been given a reasonable level of control over that exploration while being rewarded for taking initiative. Whether this turns out to be a trend or a temporary aberration remains to be seen.

Finally, it is important to stress how much Thomas has taught me about design. I often remark in my design classes that working with children, especially young children, is among the best ways to learn about learner-centered design, even if one's interest is primarily with adult populations. There are at least two reasons for this. First, young children are generally not able to bring to the learning environment as many strategies to make up for poor design. Normally functioning adult users, if motivated enough, can bring all types of learned cognitive strategies and prior knowledge to the table. My work with Thomas is a prime example of the constructivist goal to build on or cultivate whatever a learner brings to the learning environment (Papert, 1993). The role of the teacher is to facilitate this growth. Second, young children will not tolerate designs that are poor, irrelevant, or meaningless, thus making for very quick feedback to the designer. As previously discussed, Thomas has been a co-designer in all of the computer activities I have developed for him, even though he does not know it. The starting point for these custom built activities have been Thomas' interests and abilities combined with much speculation on my part about where he might be headed next. By involving Thomas in the design process at the beginning, he has largely determined the "instructional objectives."

Thomas has also made it easier for me to understand a constructivist philosophy to learning and education. Perhaps it is easier to accept such a philosophy with a child such as Thomas because he gives you little choice. The question of what needs to be learned is a great source of conflict in the adoption of a constructivist philosophy by educators in general. All "stakeholders" (students, teachers, parents, etc.) bring their values to bear in an instructional system. Thomas and I continually negotiate (though at a tacit level) on the question of what is important to know. However, his values, by necessity, dominate. The question, of course, is whether this should be treated as a special case or general policy for education.

Of course, constructivism is currently quite popular in instructional technology (Duffy & Jonassen, 1991, May). Unfortunately, popularity often leads to shallow understanding and misconceptions. For example, it is common for many to confuse constructivism with motivation by considering it as another good way to "get a learner to do something we want them to do." It is also common to simply equate constructivism with open-ended learning strategies, such as "discovery learning" (Tobin & Dawson, 1992). The relationship between constructivism (as a philosophy) and outcomes of its adoption (such as motivation and learning strategies) are not easily reconciled (see Cobb, 1994). It is one thing to consider these issues given learners of average or "normal" ability, but it quite another when a person has one or more cognitive deficits. In Thomas' case, instruction based on thoughtful explanations or guided presentations simply is not an option. As a result, Thomas has "accelerated" my understanding and adoption of constructivism.

I end this paper with a simple story of success. Any small success is a great achievement with Thomas. Just recently, while eating out at a restaurant, Thomas read the word "exit," his first sight word besides his name. He immediately began talking about Pepper Mouse.




1Thomas had been having many unsuccessful experiences in the public schools. My wife and I came to the conclusion that the schools were failing to meet Thomas' needs and rather than try to "fight the system," we decided it was in Thomas' best interest to home school him for a period of time. My wife assumed most of the home school responsibilities. We also enrolled Thomas in a Montessori school for a short time. This school seemed particularly well suited to Thomas given the nature of the Montessori method where students have much freedom to choose activities that interest them. In addition, Maria Montessori's methods were historically founded on her work with the mentally retarded. For two months, Thomas seemed to be doing well. Then, on the morning of the first day of the month, while Thomas was getting ready for school, the school's owner called to inform us that, unfortunately, Thomas had been "dismissed" from the school and that he could no longer attend effective immediately. The owner worried about what effect Thomas' presence was having on the other children. Consequently, Thomas was home schooled for the remainder of that year as well. This example is not meant as an indictment of Montesorri schools, but it well represents the general attitude we have found among professional educators. There is much talk about inclusive environments, but little motivation and understanding to promote situations in which children with exceptionalities are considered part of the school culture. This is unfortunate because normally functioning children have as much to gain as well.

2A commonly held view among developmental psychologists is that a child's drawings reflect their perception of the world. Crude representations or missing parts of objects in the world (such as fingers on a hand) are not a result of poor psychomotor skill or lack of artistic ability but are external reflections on what the child knows about the world.