A family's experience with Free Software, the Internet and autism


Ubuntu is a computer operating system alternative to Windows, but free of license costs and well suited to families and schools. When I read this message on the mailing list for Ubuntu Italian users:

My kids learned very quickly how to use both Ubuntu and the Mac. Chiara is 10 years old, Nikko 12, but he's autistic. I MUST use Windows only because the educational software for Nikko only runs on Windows!!!! Talk about monopolies... what else should I call this?

I contacted that mom to know more. The result was a really interesting phone conversation in which we also talked about Ubuntu, but mostly of the role that computers and the Internet have in a family with special needs, the general role they could have in society and of some software-related cliches. Here is (obviously with the authorization of Donatella) a summary of that phone call.

Stop: Are you a software programmer?

Donatella: No, I just learned by myself how to use computers and I am not scared of thinkering with them. I began to use regularly a computer and the Internet in 2000, just to collect as much information as possible about autism, in order to help Nikko.

Stop: How did it go?

Donatella: Within the first week I subscribed to a mailing list about autism. Since then, thanks to the Internet, I have learned a lot about autism, including the newest theories and therapies, way before they were officially discussed in Italy.

Stop: Why do you prefer Ubuntu to Windows?

Donatella: With Windows I had to waste a lot of time to continuously restart or tweak it to keep it running. Eventually I got tired of that and switched to a Mac. Later, I discovered Ubuntu online and today I use it without any problem, without any of the issues I had with Windows.

Stop: With the exception of educational software, right?

Donatella: Exactly! Doing without Windows is a problem for my kids, but only because every time we needed educational software, especially for Nikko, we only found programs for Windows XP, which wouldn’t work with the Wine emulator for Linux. Why must I be forced to use an operating system I don’t like only because of one or two programs???

Stop: Can you give us an example?

Donatella: Autistic children need support to learn how to use a mouse, to avoid getting confused about how many times and when, exactly, they shold click. For Nikko the specialists recommended Playtime For Baby & Toddler, which in that moment (besides running only on Windows and having only an English interface) could only be purchased online in the USA, that is spending in S&H twice the price of the software (10 Euros vs 5).

Stop: But there is a lot of educational software for Linux available at no charge, from DidaTux (live cd-rom for primary schools, italian only) to Kde-Edu. Why didn’t you try that, if you already like Ubuntu?

Donatella: I didn’t know those applications and I will surely try them, but I do doubt that we could use them. Software written specifically for autistics puts a lot of effort in strong feedback. After a task has been performed correctly, there’s usually a voice or phrases on the screen that say “Good! You’re great”, You’re really a wizard!” and so on. Besides, normally these programs are designed to teach, specifically to autistic users, one and only one specific task. For example, Baby & Toddler contains games to teach how to use a mouse, and others to teach that without one click nothing happens anymore: games, that is, that deliberately give no feedback in order to discourage these children from stereotyping the click and repeat it 200 times! For these children, without dedicated training the click itself may be very rewarding, sometimes even more than a voice saying “Attaboy!”

When I asked what her children say, Donatella handed the phone to Chiara and asked her what does she thinks of Ubuntu as a computer interface. Chiara said with a very puzzled voice “Ubuntu?!?” and after a few seconds brilliantly settled the question by asking “Which one is that?” and going back to her business, probably wondering about why anybody should waste time over a non-issue. I say “brilliantly” because that simple answer shows how many official efforts to teach in schools (only) “what everybody else uses, otherwise young people will have less job opportunities”, have no real justification. Donatella confirmed this when she got back to the phone.

Donatella Both my kids use three operating systems without any problems, in spite of cliches and of Nikko’s autism. They watch YouTube, listen to music and do many other things on Windows, Linux and Mac without noticing any difference, with the exception of the unintelligible error messages that Windows sends every time it crashes. I prefer when they use the other systems because I am the one who has to restart the computer when that happens!

Stop: Apart from being forced to use an operating system that you really don’t like, did you have other problems while using computers or the Internet?

Donatella: We had to endure unjustified extra expenses, due to the fact that, in practice, there is very little interest in following certain laws or making sure that they are respected. Theoretically, in Italy disabled users and their familiescan purchase hardware and software, under certain conditions, paying a much lower Value Added Tax: 4% instead of 20%. When I wanted to buy a Mac online, however, this option was simply missing from the web form!

Stop: Any suggestions for all other parents?

Donatella: Stop to be afraid of computers and try to think! Learn how to really find informations and help online through forums, mailing lists, whatever, in the most effective way. And do it always, both when you’d like to have better software and (especially) when you have some serious problem. The Internet doesn’t bite!

Suggestion from Stop! to all parents: if you want more proofs that there’s something else besides Windows, read what the Ubuntu User Day is, or why a mother thinks every family should attend a Linux Day.

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