International Meeting for Autism Research: Eliciting Social-Cognitive Behaviors in Children with ASD Using a Novel Interactive Animated Character

Eliciting Social-Cognitive Behaviors in Children with ASD Using a Novel Interactive Animated Character

Friday, May 21, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
10:00 AM
C. Samango-Sprouse , Pediatrics, George Washington University, Washington, DC
C. Lathan , AnthroTronix, Inc., Silver Spring, MD
K. Boser , Individual Differences in Learning, Inc, Ellicott City, MD
L. Georganna , WALT DISNEY PARKS & RESORTS, Lake Buena Vista, FL
J. Hodgins , Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
Background: This study is the first attempt to quantify anecdotal reports by parents of children with ASD that the character “Crush,” a part of the ‘Turtle Talk with Crush' theme park attraction, elicits social-cognitive behaviors in ASD. The interactive animation approach builds on the Crush character as a co-participant in the human interactions, which has been shown in previous research to allow for the more immediate transfer of social behaviors to natural ‘human' contexts.

Objectives: We investigated the hypothesis that interacting with Crush elicits social-cognitive behaviors and we studied key aspects of the Crush attraction that facilitate interactive behavior for social skills therapy in children with ASD.

Methods: All six participants (mean age- 4 yrs and 7 mos) had a clinical diagnosis of ASD and had no prior experience with the attraction. All children had less than 85 spoken words on the CDI and a mean T-score of 117 and 101 on the SRS and GARS-2 respectively. Children participated in one 12 minute show and one 3-5 minute “meet and greet” with the Crush character. The Crush actor, who operates the character remotely, receives extensive training on how to slow “pacing” for optimal audience responses and how to contrast voice modulation to create an engaging social atmosphere. The animation was shown on a 9 ft by 16 ft screen in a 200 person theatre.

Results: The results confirm that “Crush” can elicit social-cognitive behaviors in children with ASD including increased consistency of social greetings and referencing, joint attention, verbal and motor imitation, and initiation of motor planning and sequencing. Some examples include social smile, repetition of Crush's words or peers' responses, initiating response, pointing and tracking objects in Crush's tank, clapping/laughing, and imitating gestures. In particular, we found that two out of six subjects demonstrated a dramatic increase, over baseline reports, in social-cognitive behaviors such as motor or verbal imitation. We also found indications that the subjects may respond best in the group ‘show' where they benefit from the heightened group arousal to the character and subsequently profited from observing and imitating their peers.

Conclusions: The initial results point to a method that combines interactive, engaging animation with the advantages of a group setting. The advantages of Crush over previous attempts which use (video) ‘modeling' alone is that the skills are learned in a more naturalistic, fun, high-energy environment that increases arousal level for greater sustained attention and learning. These preliminary results suggest an alternative and creative mechanism to develop social-cognitive and motor learning opportunities for children with ASD.