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The Echoes Technology-Enhanced Learning Environment: Facilitating Social Communication Skills in Children with Autism

Friday, 3 May 2013: 09:00-13:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
G. Rajendran1, K. Porayska-Pomsta2, T. J. Smith3 and O. Lemon4, (1)Psychology, Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, (2)London Knowledge Lab, London, United Kingdom, (3)Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London, London, United Kingdom, (4)Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterised by difficulties in social interaction. This is most pronounced in spontaneous initiations (Mundy & Newell, 2007). By exploiting their affinity for computing technology, we created the ECHOES virtual environment (e.g. Porayska-Pomsta et al., 2012) to provide experiential learning of joint attention skills for children with ASD.

Objectives: To increase the number of social initiations both within a virtual learning environment and in a real life setting. To compare differences in social initiations within the virtual environment and in a real life setting. To provide fine-grained analysis of how children perform within the virtual environment and, thereby, create a more comprehensive description of each child.

Methods: 42 children with ASD and typically developing children were exposed to a variety of environments populated by an interactive virtual character and various objects – for 10-20 minutes, several times a week, over six weeks. E.g, in a colour ball sorting task, the child interacted with the character by selecting the correctly coloured ball and ‘dragging’ it across the touch screen. Specifically, we targeted increases in spontaneous initiations of interactions – both towards the virtual character and human partner. Videos of children were coded for fine-grained analysis scheme based on the SCERTS framework (Rubin, Laurent, Prizant & Wetherby 2009). 

Results: Data suggests differences between within and outside environment learning for the ASD group. For example, the number of social initiations (e.g. bids for joint attention) – in a real life setting – pre to post-test for both the typically developing children and the children with ASD did not change. However, there was within environment change for the group of children with ASD: who increased their number of initiations to both the virtual agent (‘Andy’) and human facilitator within ECHOES. Eight children increased their number of initiations to Andy, 7 produced the same number and only 4 decreased. This suggests that the heterogeneity in our ASD children may make it difficult to identify a significant group increase in initiations. However, for a number of children Andy appears to be eliciting a large increase in their spontaneous initiations of social interaction. This is strikingly obvious when examining videos: e.g., one child who showed no initial interest in Andy spontaneously waved and said “Hi Andy!” when the agent walked on the screen in a later session. Such behaviours were extremely surprising to teachers and support workers within the school who believed the child in question to be non-communicative. 

Conclusions: The ‘simplicity’ of the ECHOES virtual environment may have helped some children with ASD interact better with other people and virtual characters whilst they were in the environment. Further, ECHOES provided detailed information about each child beyond the standardised tests used (e.g. verbal mental age). These early results are encouraging us to 1) think of how these technologies can be used to help integrate people with ASD into society 2) how this fine-grained analysis provides a more detailed picture of the child and their potential beyond standardised measures.

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