A special interest at the ArticuLab is to understand how children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) communicate with their peers. Successful peer interactions are vital to learning, future employment and well-being. Furthermore, while social interaction is a core deficit in autism, assessing and treating social deficits is not well understood. To address these needs, we use a unique paradigm of human-computer interaction, called virtual peers, to promote a better understanding of the verbal and non-verbal communication skills of children with ASD, their assessment and the individualized design of interventions.
What is ASD?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that is characterized by three core features: impairments in social skills, impairments in verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviors. ASD encompasses a range of disorders including Autism, PDD-NOS, and Asperger Syndrome. Although common characteristics define each diagnosis, there is considerable variability among individuals within each diagnostic category.
What are Virtual Peers?
Virtual Peers are life-sized, computer animated children capable of carrying on realistic and natural conversations with people. They can help researchers understand how people communicate. They are also a novel way for everyday people to communicate with computers.
How can Virtual Peers promote the understanding of ASD symptoms?
Our research on peer social interaction in ASD involves two lines of inquiry: assessment and intervention. Our studies include observations of children with ASD as well as of typically-developing children, in a range of social contexts, to better understand the behaviors underlying typical and atypical patterns of reciprocal social interaction. By simulating those behaviors in virtual peers we can then better understand why children are behaving the way they do, and we can also build virtual playmates that model and engage the children in typical patterns of behavior. An ongoing process of observation, evaluation, refining and redesigning characterizes our work to ensure scientific standards and real-world value.
Technology for Assessment.
The assessment aspect of our work involves creating simulations of group interactions that may be difficult for children with ASD. For example, we might show two life-size virtual peers playing, and then invite the real child with ASD to join the group this allows us to assess the strategies children with ASD use to join a group, maintain an interaction and end an interaction, among other reciprocal social interaction skills.
Participants for this study: Children ages 4-6 years old diagnosed with high-functioning autism, Asperger syndrome, and PDD-NOS.
Authorable Virtual Peers as a Social Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Another line of research is investigating the use of technology as a social intervention for children with ASD. We are using Virtual Peers to create a social context for rehearsing and experimenting with important skills for social reciprocity. Examples range from fundamental skills such as continuing the topic of a conversation and appropriate turn-taking to more complex abilities such as taking the perspective of another person and understanding appropriate behaviors in a given context. We are developing a new technology, called an Authorable Virtual Peer, which will enable children to not only tell stories with the virtual peer using speech and gesture, but also create and control the behaviors of the Virtual Peer while it interacts with another person. Studying the effects of using virtual peers may contribute important information about the underlying mechanisms of communication and social reciprocity in ASD while providing an innovative intervention for building skills vital to peer interaction.
Participants for this study: Children ages 8-12 years old diagnosed with high-functioning autism, Asperger syndrome, and PDD-NOS.
Generously funded by Autism Speaks / Cure Autism Now / NAAR.