Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tools for Educators and Parents: Fast ForWord

Article first published as Tools for Educators and Parents: Fast ForWord on Technorati.


A few weeks ago, I got an email asking me to check out a tool for educational professionals and parents: Fast ForWord. The tool is designed to help students learn to read, and increase their reading ability. The system is designed to work with a speech and language provider, of which there is just one in the state of Utah. It works much like a video game, which makes it popular with children.

What is really interesting is that the technique has been clinically proven to work. The system was developed jointly by Rugters University and Northwestern University, and shown to build long connections in the brain between the language hemisphere and other parts of the brain.

What are long connections? Well, think of them as highways between different regions of the brain. Whenever you need to do something complex, like, say, reading. Here you are taking a pictograph (the alphabet), and processing those symbols into letters. Those letters are then processed into phonetic sounds to form a word, and that word needs to be associated with something real and tangible. For the neuro-typical brain, i.e., most brains, this is a simple process because of long connections. The highways are able to move each step to the right place quickly and easily.

The brain of a person with Autism, however, has a problem. They don't have as many of these long connections across the brain, and therefore instead of having a highway, it's more like a dirt road trying to move the information around. By contrast, local connections are huge and massive compared to the neuro-typical brain. So a lot of processing can get done locally, but not a lot can get done across the brain.

So tasks like Reading become burdensome, and as language can be closely related to the written form, their speech can suffer as well. And this is exactly what Faster ForWord had addressed in their program.

I got to speak with Dr. Martha Burns Ph.D, and part of the study and development of Fast ForWord. She told me of a case study where a young man with High-Functioning Autism had gone from non-verbal to speaking in a few years. He is now studying at MIT and about to graduate. She provided a lot of personalized information for my son which I intend to use, and recommended our school system look into various tools for him specifically.

After speaking with Dr. Burns, I started going through some of the demonstration tools that are provided on the Fast ForWord website. They seemed simple enough, and I think my son would enjoy them. As to whether or not they have helped him, it's too soon to tell. First, because there is only one provider locally, and second it's only been a couple of weeks since I have known about the program. But I would be willing to try it and see.

So for any of you out there who have tried using Fast ForWord, or have it available in your current school curriculum, I would be pleased with any reports back. How has it worked for you? Would you recommend it for others? What is your take on the program?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Case Against The Cloud: Local Servers and Security

When Amazon's cloud network went down, there was a panic on the Internet.  Several well known and professional services were down for hours, if not days, and we were reminded once again just how fragile the Internet can be.  With all the push for "cloud" computing, this seemed to be a huge argument against it.  Couple it with the recent hacking of the Playstation Network and Android's revelation of authenticating users in clear text internally, and I began to think again about security on the Internet.  

Sure, it's convenient to pay someone else to host your services, email, etc, so that you can access that data on the go anywhere, but what control do you have over that data?  In a private world, it's not that big of a deal, but in the professional world privacy and security are crucial to business operations.  Providing security for the data is a top priority, and if you can't rely on your hosting service, on whom can you rely?

The obvious answer is to host the services yourself, in your own server farm.  But this can be expensive when you consider the costs of data connections, bandwidth, power requirements, and air-conditioning to keep the server room comfortable with all that heat pumping out from the computers.  And then you need to monitor the servers' performance, keep them up to date, patch them with security patches when necessary, reboot them if needed, etc.  All the expense that caused businesses to farm out their services to dedicated service hosts in the first place.  

So what is the answer?  I'm not sure there is one, to be frank.  Bandwidth is becoming less of an issue, as more municipalities add fiber optic connections (e.g. UTOPIA), and less power consumption has become a priority with chip makers like Intel, making the power bill for servers less of a headache.  That also means less power being converted into heat, so air conditioning needs are dramatically reduced.  But there is still the cost of the administration team to keep and manage the servers. 

But what is the alternative?  I doubt something this big will happen to Amazon again, and even smaller service sites will be better served by the failure on April 21st as they make sure they don't have the same problem.  But what control do you have over your services?  Let's take a simple thing like email as an example.  If you use Google Gmail, then your emails are stored on their servers. But what if they are hacked, and your email is then taken?  It's remote, but it could happen (as it has in the past).  If you keep your email internal, or even have two email services, one for internal mail and one for a public communication service, you then control your internal mail content.  

Perhaps I'm just being paranoid, or over cautious, but it's something to think about.  There are huge benefits to the cloud and being able to access your desktop/service/files anywhere you need them.  But there are potential costs as people with nefarious intent/nothing better to do will try to attack and glean anything they can from big service providers.  It's a dilemma I'm working on for my own potential startup, and one that I think should be taken seriously before I put my infrastructure in place. 

So what do you think?  Am I just being paranoid?  What would you do, if you were starting a business and security was something very important to that business?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Life After High School: Autism in College

Article first published as Life After High School: Autism in College on Technorati.

To date the discussion of autism has been primarily on the load that is weighing down our public elementary school system. The number of children being diagnosed, the number of children in need of special handling or exceptions, all have become a growing concern to the school system. It then spreads upward to secondary schools for a continuation of those same services. Then what?

There are a number of adults with autism, many of them undiagnosed, and they are also in need of assistance. Many of them are already in college, or at least looking to go eventually, but are not aware of the services that many colleges and universities offer.

As a test, I checked here locally at the University of Utah (of which I am an employee), to see what services are available. Their services are provided through the Center for Disability Services, which is located in the Union building, first floor, in the very back hallway. It's a small office, but don't let that fool you.

So what services do they offer? First and foremost they offer general advising. That is, help in planning their academic future. They will investigate the student's academic strengths and weaknesses to help plan what program would be the best fit for them. They can also refer the student of various other campus and community services that may be available. Utah is not well known for the services they offer, but those that are offered are very welcome to those on the spectrum.

If necessary, they can act as a liaison between the student and faculty or other departments for accommodation needs. They identify the ideal learning strategies for the student, and provide assistance when needed. They can also assist in registration and admissions.

Test taking is very important, because departments need to provide some method of measuring what has been learned. The Center will provide accommodations for test taking (verbal reading of the questions, scribes, and test taking technologies), offer note taker or interpreter services as needed, and so on. They can also provide text books in alternative formats if necessary (such as braille). They also work with adaptive technologies to further the student's learning ability. And, of course, they can work with the student to receive scholarships.

The one thing that the student needs to provide for these services is documented diagnoses for their related disabilities. For autism, that can be a bit of a problem, as many children and adults live without a diagnosis. All the more reason to utilize the University's student counseling center to find a good psychologist that can make such a diagnosis. At that point, the services are available to anyone.

This, of course, is just the University of Utah. All state schools are required to comply with the accommodations outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and should provide similar services. Some provide more, but I can't imagine any providing less (and not getting a lawsuit).

So if you are wondering what would be the best school to attend for your young adult on the Spectrum, check first to see what services are offered. You may be surprised by the options available.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Vaccine Injury Compensation Program Review: What It Really Means

Article first published as Vaccine Injury Compensation Program Review: What It Really Means on Technorati..

There has been a recent preliminary review that has gotten a lot of press lately, as a claim to proof that vaccines do cause Autism. The claim is shocking, as just about every clinical, double-blind study (not falsified with fraudulent data) has conclusively shown that there is no link between Autism and vaccines. Yet still this persists, and now a "Study" can be pulled from the court cases of the Vaccine Courts to prove it. At least that is the claim of many websites, so many in fact that it's becoming a popular link to share.

So, what can one do but review the data? 

The article is very telling. It mentions the past compensation offered by the Vaccine Courts to children with symptoms that can accompany Autism, and then the immediate denial of Autism directly as a cause. They then continue to question the fairness of the vaccine courts in an attempt to identify inconsistencies in the rulings. Nowhere does it claim that vaccines cause Autism, or have any relation to the condition. In fact, on page 482, fourth paragraph down, they say, "This assessment of compensated cases showing an association between vaccines and autism is not, and does not purport to be, science." All the authors point out is that the "finding raises fundamental questions about the integrity, transparency, and fairness of this forum."

So what is the article all about? 83 cases of damage related to Autism had been ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and now the Vaccine Courts no longer rule in that favor. They are just drawing attention to this fact in order to call for a review of the courts themselves.

So what does it mean to the rest of us? Vaccines are still not the cause of Autism, and we need to let that argument go. Worry about what to do for your children instead of who you can sue. The review is there to call into question the legal grounds of each dismissed case, not the scientific causes of Autism.