VIDEO: How Digital Worlds Can Help Autistic Children Develop Social Skills

2nd December 2011

The benefits of virtual worlds can be used to help autistic children develop social skills beyond their anticipated levels, suggest early findings from new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Researchers on the Echoes Project have developed an interactive environment which uses multi-touch screen technology where virtual characters on the screener act to children’s actions in real time.

During sessions in the virtual environment, primary school children experiment with different social scenarios, allowing the researchers to compare their reactions with those they display in real-world situations.

“Discussions of the data with teachers suggest a fascinating possibility,” said project leader Dr Kaska Porayska-Pomsta. “Learning environments such as Echoes may allow some children to exceed their potential, behaving and achieving in ways that even teachers who knew them well could not have anticipated.”

“A teacher observing a child interacting in such a virtual environment may gain access to a range of behaviours from individual children that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to observe in a classroom,” she added.

Early indications of this research are that over a number of sessions some children demonstrate a better quality of interaction within the virtual environment and an increased ability to manage their own behaviour, enabling them to concentrate on following a virtual character’s gaze or to focus on a pointing gesture, thus developing the skills vital for good communication and effective learning.

The findings could prove particularly useful in helping children with autism to develop skills they normally find difficult. Dr Porayska-Pomsta said: “Since autistic children have a particular affinity with computers, our research shows it may be possible to use digital technology to help develop their social skills.

The beauty of it is that there are no real-world consequences, so children can afford to experiment with different social scenarios without real-world risks,” she added.

The findings from the Echoes Project will showcase technologies for autism during an event in Birmingham which is part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in November.The event will involve pupils, parents and teachers. Participants will be given the opportunity to engage in hands-on experiences, workshops and discussion.

In the longer term, virtual platforms such as the ones developed in the Echoes project could help young children to realise their potential in new and unexpected ways,” concluded Dr Porayska-Pomsta.

VIDEO:  Dr Porayska-Pomsta talks us through the Echoes  Project

About the Project

  • The project has funding of £1.2m and runs from December 2008 – November 2011
  • The project leader is Dr Kaska Porayska-Pomsta of the London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education
  • Other team members are based at Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Dundee and Strathclyde Universities and at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.
  • The 16 members of the interdisciplinary team include experts in AI, special needs education and multimodal environments.

The Environment

The ECHOES environment is made up of a range of hardware and software and designed in conjunction with children, researchers, parents and teachers.

Elements include:

  • large multi-touch-screen
  • three webcams for detecting gaze and facial expressions
  • virtual characters that use AI to react to children’s actions in real-time
  • gaze and touch tracking software that informs the environment’s reactions to the child
  • social signal processing and user modeling software

Emerging Themes and Findings

Initial observations from a recent study of attention and gaze following in children with ASD showed that they were able to learn to follow gaze cues while communicating with the ECHOES virtual character and that they treated the virtual character as an agent and as an equal partner in the interaction.

One very exciting observation is that some children were also able to self-regulate during the interactions, which surprised and delighted their daily carers.

In particular, some children displayed behaviours that, their carers say, they normally find difficult. These behaviours included sustained focus of attention, anticipation as well as knowingly searching for interaction cues from the virtual character.

These initial trials highlight the potential of technology such as the Echoes environment, whereby social contexts can be paced and enriched according to each child’s individual needs.

Side notes to this article

  1. This release is based on early findings from the Echoes Project, a multi-disciplinary research project, which is part of the UK-wide Technology Enhanced Learning research programme and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The project involved researchers from the London Knowledge Lab (IOE London and Birkbeck University of London), the University of Edinburgh, University of Birmingham, University of Dundee, Heriot-Watt University, University of Strathclyde, University of Sussex, and the University of Wales Institute Cardiff
  2. The research was carried out in four primary schools, two in Scotland and two in England. Some 50 children aged four to seven were involved, both those with typical development and those diagnosed with autism on a broad spectrum. The research utilised a 42-inch multi-touch screen, with webcams and gaze and tracking software to monitor the children’s reactions. Each child had eight sessions in the Echoes environment, and their behaviour was compared with that displayed traditional activities that took place both before and after their virtual engagement.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

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