Autism and Virtual Pals

  by  |  April 23rd, 2008  |  Published in All, Brain & Psychology, Health, Technology

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Kids with autism have trouble listening and responding, but they may get some help from a virtual friend. As this ScienCentral News video explains, technology could help previously isolated kids make connections in the real world.

Interviewees: Justine Cassell, Northwestern University
Robert Heckman, parent
Length: 1 min 40 sec
Produced by Sandy Chase and Jessica Tanenbaum
Edited by Sandy Chase and Chris Bergendorff
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

Good Conversation

Ten-year-old Charles, who has autism, is happy to tell you a story by himself. But when asked to collaborate with another child on a story, he doesn’t have much to say.

Autism is marked by impairments in communication and social behavior; people with autism may perform repetitive behaviors and prefer an unchanging environment. Autism is a brain disorder that is typically diagnosed in children before the age of three. The effects of autism vary along a spectrum of severity, but it most often impairs both social interaction and the ability to learn in a typical classroom setting.

Valeria Nanclares, child psychologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, explains, “The difference between typically developing peers and children with autism has to do with their ability to build and sustain a conversation. Typically developing kids can understand that they need to pick up on the other child’s cues, follow the leads of what they just said, so they can build a conversation,” she says.

With a Little Help

To address that deficit, Justine Cassell, director of the Center for Technology & Social Behavior at Northwestern University and her team developed a life-sized virtual pal named Sam. Sam helps autistic kids practice the back-and-forth exchange of conversation, a skill Cassell says is essential for making social connections and learning in the classroom.

The “Virtual Peer” has two modes: the first is an autonomous mode that senses when there are gaps in the conversation and even where the child puts toys in the playhouse. The second is the “Wizard of Oz” mode, where a therapist (hidden from view) triggers Sam’s prerecorded statements, gestures, and reactions.

Although controlled by an adult, Cassell says, “The script for Sam is written on the basis of a very tight understanding of how children talk with one another.” That includes Sam’s gestures and body language, which naturally help cue collaborative storytelling.

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

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