Virtual worlds help autistic kids develop social skills

[From Zee News; the Echoes web site is here]

Virtual worlds help autistic kids develop social skills

Last Updated: Saturday, October 22, 2011

Washington: A new study has suggested that the benefits of virtual worlds can be used to help autistic children develop social skills beyond their anticipated levels.

Researchers on the Echoes Project have developed an interactive environment which uses multi-touch screen technology where virtual characters on the screener act to children’s actions in real time.

During sessions in the virtual environment, primary school children experiment with different social scenarios, allowing the researchers to compare their reactions with those they display in real-world situations.

“Discussions of the data with teachers suggest a fascinating possibility,” said project leader Dr Kaska Porayska-Pomsta.

“Learning environments such as Echoes may allow some children to exceed their potential, behaving and achieving in ways that even teachers who knew them well could not have anticipated.

“A teacher observing a child interacting in such a virtual environment may gain access to a range of behaviours from individual children that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to observe in a classroom,” she added.

Early indications of this research are that over a number of sessions some children demonstrate a better quality of interaction within the virtual environment and an increased ability to manage their own behaviour.

These enabled them to concentrate on following a virtual character’s gaze or to focus on a pointing gesture, thus developing the skills vital for good communication and effective learning.

The findings could prove particularly useful in helping children with autism to develop skills they normally find difficult.

Dr Porayska-Pomsta concluded: “Since autistic children have a particular affinity with computers, our research shows it may be possible to use digital technology to help develop their social skills.”

The findings from the Echoes Project will showcase technologies for autism during an event in Birmingham, which is part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in November.

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