June 9, 2008
After his grandson Zackary was diagnosed with severe autism, John LeSieur set out to create a Web browser that would allow Zackary to use the Internet more effectively. The result is the ZAC Browser, a new product that aims to provide a safe, controlled way for autistic children to browse the web. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing LeSieur, who is president of People CD, about several aspects of the product, including its inspiration and how it actually works.
Your site states that the ZAC Browser was designed for children with autism, autism spectrum disorders, pervasive development disorders, as well as PDD-NOS. In what ways does the browser create a fulfilling experience for these kids?
The three most important ways that ZAC Browser enhances an autistic child's Internet experience are:
First, the ZAC Browser is "full-screen" software, meaning that the software consumes the entire viewable screen and the child cannot navigate away from the application to any other applications or files. While in ZAC Browser the user has access to all of the applications that we make available to them. These are public websites that are approved for their positive content and ease of usability. Another important protection feature is that no one can communicate with the user through Web chat, pop-ups, or any other means. We take the protection feature very seriously.
Second, we address the traits of autistic children and cater our software to their specific needs. At all levels of autism (high functioning to low functioning) autistic children face frustration due to over-stimulation. ZAC Browser creates an environment where there are consistently the same applications in the same order. We add new sites often, but only at the end of the current structure so that users do not experience frustration in locating their favorite sites. We also remove the right-click function of the mouse, so that the user does not accidentally click and get no result, click and get the wrong result (like a print screen) or accidentally quit the program. We also have a consistent way for the user to get back to the ZAC Browser main menu and advance to the next screen. Our menu is presented in big graphic icons, which makes it much easier to use.
Third, we set our goals at addressing what we think is a very important factor in autistic children, and that is self-esteem. Children with limitations such as autism are constantly feeling like their ability to function and communicate is less than anyone else's, and this creates very low self-esteem, which leads to outbursts of frustration that range from quiet self hatred to verbal and physical tirades. ZAC Browser gives autistic children a safe place to discover their excellence. Autism has several limitations, but it also typically produces extreme excellence in a limited area of the child's brain, like in sequencing or memory. Because ZAC Browser is a computer application, and computers cater to logic-based input, autistic children typically excel in interacting with the computer programs, which translates to higher self-esteem.
Your grandson Zackary was diagnosed as severely autistic in 2005 and is the inspiration behind this project. Can you give the readers a little insight on Zachary's story and how development of the browser all started?
We have created ZAC Browser out of a deeply felt need of our own. Six years ago we were blessed with a beautiful grandson, Zackary. At an early age Zackary began displaying classic signs of a pervasive development disorder (PDD) and was diagnosed as severely autistic. We created Kidz CD (www.kidzcd.com), a free Internet browser for children of all ages, to provide a safe, age-appropriate place for kids to "surf" the Internet.
Prior to our first release of Kidz CD, Zackary didn't enjoy the computer at all. It was very frustrating to him, and he would act out his frustration on objects around the house, like the computer. In our first release of Kidz CD, we were amazed that Zackary was able to play freely within the browser. His mother told us how Kidz CD helped calm Zackary, and how his use of Kidz CD made him much less violent in his interactions with others and with objects - a huge triumph for her everyday. It was like a fantastic playground for Zackary. It freed his mind and allowed him to relate and interact successfully without the frustrating limitation of speech and social acceptance. When this door opened to us it was obvious that this playground of Zackary's was meant to be shared with the world, so we created ZAC Browser.