“Virtual Child” Provides Researchers and Teachers Insight into Autism
January 19, 2018 | by Dena Friedman
One in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism, usually before age 2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early intervention is critical in addressing intellectual delays and disabilities, as well as fending off behavioral problems. Finding adequately trained professionals to work with ASD children has been exceedingly challenging because training generally takes place one-on-one with children with a broad range of symptoms and particular needs. Seeking to help minimize this disparity, researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell received a $250,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to develop an interactive, immersive teaching tool for
professionals called the Virtual Child.
The software is the brainchild of Richard Serna, Associate Professor of Psychology and the principal investigator, and offers a means for proper training in the most effective treatment for children with ASD: behavioral intervention. “There’s simulation of patients, and I thought, ‘Why can’t we simulate an individual with autism and leverage the kinds of game technology that’s currently out there to entertain teenagers,’” Prof. Serna said.
Since more boys than girls are diagnosed with ASD, the Virtual Child program uses a computer-generated boy in a simulated environment. The boy presents common learning difficulties, and the trainee controls how questions are posed to the boy and is then prompted by the software to respond in a timely manner whether the child answered correctly. If the user does so, and applies the best behavioral intervention technique/s in the proper sequence to help the boy learn a new skill or desired behavior, the user proceeds to the next lesson. Otherwise, the software offers feedback and a chance for a “do-over.”
“The software will be useful in college classrooms, for new employees of agencies, special education teachers, paraprofessionals in schools, and even parents,” said Prof. Charles Hamad of the U Mass Medical School, a fellow psychologist who is working on the Virtual Boy with Prof. Serna.
Future incarnations of the software will feature “voice control, different virtual children, more languages, more interventions, and more behaviors and levels of difficulty,” Prof. Serna said.
The researchers hope that that connections made using the Virtual Boy can lead to real life ones.