The Potential of Collaborative Virtual Environments for ASD Intervention

Friday, May 13, 2016: 10:00 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
L. Zhang, H. Zhao, Q. Fu, A. Swanson, A. S. Weitlauf, Z. Warren and N. Sarkar, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

Over the past decade researchers have explored traditional virtual reality (VR) environments as potential intervention platforms for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Such systems, however, have often been limited by the programming burden of attempting to realize fluid social communication and meaningful conversation within system as well as restraints in the flexibility of employing confederate partners. Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVEs), distributed and multiplayer involved virtual environments, may be have considerable more potential to overcome these barriers for more realistic deployment as ASD intervention tools. Specifically, CVEs can be developed to offer children with ASD opportunities to interact and communicate with peers in a safe and flexible communication environment that may also be more intrinsically motivating and easier to access than traditional forms of social intervention. 


We designed and evaluated a CVE where children with ASD and their typically developing (TD) peers engaged in a series of collaborative games.  We evaluated the feasibility and tolerability of the system as well as the impact of the CVE on within system performance and metrics of social communication skill. 


Our CVE was developed with Unity3D game engine (http://unity3d.com/). Three different types of puzzle games were designed, including turn-taking, color-sharing, and enforced collaboration games, to foster different kinds of collaborative interactions and communications. The CVE was designing to be accessed by two users from different locations through internet. The distributed users communicated by voice in real time in the CVE. Seven ASD/TD pairs, and seven TD/TD pairs completed the one visit experiment which involved pre/post-test evaluation as well as an extended period of interaction within the CVE. The pre- and post-test were composed with turn-taking game and enforced collaboration games requiring sharing color for estimation of changes in interactions and communications of participants. 


When examining the interaction pairs, the task-related performance of ASD/TD pairs and TD/TD pairs improved across the CVE interaction session. There was a significant increase in the success frequency as well as a significant decrease in time duration of both turn-taking and enforced collaboration from pre-test to the post-test. The number of the task-oriented spontaneous utterance in ASD/TD pairs and the number of the task-oriented questions utterance in TD/TD pairs significantly increased.

Changes were also seen in examining individual performance metrics.  Specifically, the task-related performance of children with ASD, TD children in the ASD/TD pairs, and TD children in the TD/TD pairs improved. TD children in both groups increased in the word frequency, with the number of social utterances of individual children in the TD pairs decreasing.  


CVEs may have the ability to foster collaborative interaction and communication skills for children with ASD.  Such environments could yield interesting metrics of social communication and/or potential modalities for intervention.  Planned future work will modify the system to add feedback as well as verbal and nonverbal (eye gaze) contingencies to develop potential intervention platforms for peer mediated intervention.