A new research project suggests virtual worlds can help autistic children develop social skills beyond their anticipated levels.
In the study, called the Echoes Project, scientists developed an interactive environment that uses multi-touch screen technology to project scenarios to children.
The technology allows researchers to study a child’s actions to new situations 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 Kaska Porayska-Pomsta, Ph.D.
“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 behaviors from individual children that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to observe in a classroom,” she added.
Early findings from this research show that practice with various scenarios has improved the quality of the interaction for some of the children.
Researchers believe the virtual environment and an increased ability to manage their own behavior enables a child 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.
Porayska-Pomsta said: “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 beauty of it is that there are no real-world consequences, so children can afford to experiment with different social scenarios without real-world risks,” she added.
“In the longer term, virtual platforms such as the ones developed in the Echoes project could help young children to realize their potential in new and unexpected ways,” Porayska-Pomsta said.