John LeSieur's six-year-old grandson Zackary was overwhelmed by computers: too many options, too many colors, too much stuff in general to keep track of. Zachary has autism, and LeSieur tried to find a web browser that would be less confusing. When he couldn't find such a browser for Zackary, he made one.
The Zone for Autistic Children (ZAC) browser is in many ways like a typical kids' browser. It has lots of free kids' websites built in, like PBS Kids and Nick, Jr. But what sets the browser apart is its minimalism. On starting up, there are only four large icons on the bottom of the screen–for Television, Music, Games and Stories, respectively. Clicking on one reveals only so many choices on the screen at one time, which kids can scroll through by using "Back" and "Forward" arrow-buttons. These choices are just icons, with no text: good for those autistic people whose visual thinking is better than their understanding of language, as well as for young children who haven't learned to read yet.
Zackary's browser may have been designed especially for him, but it could be useful for other kids with similar problems. As Brown University autism researcher Stephen Sheinkopf said in a USA Today article about the ZAC Browser: "Some parts of the Web have so much extraneous material that it can be distracting, and for the nonverbal child, there might not be an ability to negotiate that information." This past April LeSieur released it free of charge. (It only runs on Windows so far). Right now the browser doesn't let parents add or delete websites, but LeSieur hopes to add that feature in the future. Since people with autism can be sensitive to things like light and color, highly customizable color schemes might be a good idea, too.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.