|Charles, a ten-year-old boy with autism, tells stories with a virtual peer.|
Charles, like many autistic children, likes technology, so the researchers give him a chance to be the "Wizard" and control Sam while Sam tells stories with a typically developing child. In this way, Charles can speak and play through an avatar. "We believe the child with autism may be making Sam do things that the child himself cannot yet do," explains Cassell, "but knows – in some vague sense of knowing – how to do it."
Ultimately the technology is about scaffolding, or practicing skills in a controlled environment. Cassell emphasizes, "We see virtual children as an intermediate step between social isolation and living in a social community with other children."
Charles' dad, Robert Heckman, is excited by the results. "First thing Charlie said when he came into see me is, 'I have a new virtual friend, Daddy! You know, we told stories together.' Just that being comfortable…is wonderful."
Cassell says this kind of connection is key not just for socializing, but also for the kind of peer learning and classroom interaction essential for learning math, science, and literature.
In order to make the technology accessible to any autistic child with a computer, Cassell would like to see Sam run on a basic web browser. At the moment Sam is only in use in a few experimental setups in the Chicago area, but they are hoping to find a company to move it forward into production.
PUBLICATIONS: Universal Usability: Designing Computer Interfaces for Diverse User Populations, 2006; Proceedings of International Conference of the Learning Sciences, June 2008.
RESEARCH FUNDED BY: Autism Speaks, Cure Autism Now, National Association of Autism Research