Autistic spectrum disorders are conceptualized as a spectrum of developmental disabilities caused by neurological impairment. Deficits within the social cognitive domain, including challenges with social/emotional reciprocity, emotion/affect recognition and expression are considered hallmark characteristics resulting in the inability to recognize, interpret and utilize emotions and subsequently developing and maintaining relationships with others.
Research has shown various treatment modalities to be effective however; emerging technology-based treatments focused on emotion recognition (ER) are relatively new and cost effective. A number of studies suggest positive results utilizing this technology to teach basic and sometimes complex ER however, the major limitation has been the lack of generalizing the learned skills to natural settings.
This study examined the extent to which a computer based intervention program called FaceSay could increase the affect recognition skills and theory of mind skills of school aged children with ASD as well as to determine if collateral social skills and behaviors would generalize to the school environment.
The study involved the use of a 2 x 2 mixed factorial design. The within factor, time, had two levels, pre- and post-intervention; the between factor, training, also had two levels, experimental and control groups. Participants included 31 school-aged children attending a public school, and placed in regular education classrooms who met the educational criteria for autism. Pre- and post-intervention data was collected via standardized neuropsychological assessment, evaluating the participant’s ability to accurately identify emotions in others and to understand other’s perspectives, and social interactions were assessed via teacher questionnaire and blinded social skills observations on the playground. The participant’s in the experimental group underwent 10 weeks of computer based intervention while those in the control group utilized another type of program.
Analysis results indicate that by practicing simulated activities addressing eye gaze, joint attention skills, emotional cognition and facial recognition skills on the computer the participant’s in the experimental group were able to significantly (p = .000) increase their affect recognition capabilities and their theory of mind skills. Although these improvements were noted in the participant’s emotion recognition and social cognition skills, based upon standardized assessment, the hypotheses that improved social interactions in the school environment would also occur were not fully supported. Standardized teacher report measures did approach significance (p = .06) suggesting that some generalizability to the school environment occurred.
Besides adding to the general body of literature on this subject the results of this study can be useful for parents, psychologists, educators, and specialists who live and work with children on the autistic spectrum. As the prevalence of ASD increases, the identification of more evidence-based and cost effective teaching methods is warranted. This study demonstrated that the use of computer technology in helping ASD children understand the social world is highly effective. The computer software program, FaceSay definitively increases the ability of children on the autistic spectrum how to recognize emotions and understand another’s perspective as well as showing great promise in increasing their ability to generalize these skills in their school environment.
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