International Meeting for Autism Research: Using Social Mirrors to Teach Conversation Skills to People with Social Skill Deficits

Using Social Mirrors to Teach Conversation Skills to People with Social Skill Deficits

Friday, May 21, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
9:00 AM
T. Bergstrom , Computer Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
K. Karahalios , Computer Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
M. Dixon , Hearing and Speech Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
S. Wayland , Center for Advanced Study of Language, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

Many people with developmental disorders like Asperger's Syndrome (AS), high functioning autism (HFA), non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD), and pervasive developmental delay – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) have difficulty with conversational interaction: turn-taking, interrupting, conversational dominance, turn length and emphasis with vocal volume. Conventional intervention has focused on remediation by teaching, practicing, and then observing social skills. Few interventions occur during conversation. We use the Conversation Clock, a visual computer interface, to provide immediate conversational feedback.

The Conversation Clock creates a constant visual depiction of conversation based on personal microphone input: representing current volume as a bar, minutes as concentric rings, and speakers by color. This visualization is projected onto an easily visible circular table. The persisting visualization of speech, silence, turns, and overlapping speech make concepts like interruptions and conversational dominance more salient in conversation. From this feedback, people can evaluate and change their behavior.


This study will analyze the effectiveness of the Conversation Clock, alongside conventional interventions, in modifying conversational skills of children with social skills deficits. A secondary goal is to accurately define who benefits most from this type of intervention by carefully characterizing our participants – their strengths, weaknesses, preferences and temperaments. We hope to move beyond diagnosis to a more comprehensive understanding of our participants.


Participants are children and adults over the age of 14, diagnosed with AS, HFA, NVLD, or PDD-NOS. We assess participants using standardized tests: Test of Language Competence-Expanded; Detroit Test of Learning Aptitudes; Behavioral Assessment of Dysexecutive Syndrome; Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test and the Perceptual Learning-Style Preference Questionnaire. Nonstandardized assessments include: The Quick Scan (of Abilities and Challenges); Social Communication Skills Rating Form; an Interest Survey; and a Case History.

Each participant is paired with a typically-developing peer of similar age with similar interests. In our control condition, clinicians teach participants the rules of social interaction, give them a chance to practice those skills, and then analyze a video recording with the participant via a social autopsy. The experimental condition adds the Conversation Clock to provide immediate feedback.

During conversation sessions, pairs read and hear the beginning of a story and work to create three endings. Participants rank the endings from least to most favorite before describing them to the clinician.

Sessions follow the schedule:

  • Assessments Familiarization (game)
  • Pre-Intervention (no autopsy)
  • Pre-Intervention (no autopsy)
  • Pre-Intervention (no autopsy)
  • Intervention (Half Control: Half Experimental)
  • Intervention
  • Intervention
  • Intervention
  • Intervention
  • Post-Intervention (no Conversation Clock, no autopsy)


We will code participants on all the acoustic measurements collected to determine whether conversation more closely tracks normal dialog after the intervention.

We will show whether participants benefit from the Conversation Clock more than they do with conventional therapy. In addition, we hope to learn whether we can predict and/or characterize subgroups that will benefit most based on our pre-test assessments.


Results of the study will add to the body of data concerning the conversational characteristics of children with social skills deficits and guide in the development of effective computer-interface interventions in treatment.