Promoting Social Communication in Children on the Autism Spectrum Through a Virtual Learning Environment (ECHOES)

Friday, May 18, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
10:00 AM
K. Guldberg1, A. Alcorn2, M. Mademtzi1 and H. Pain3, (1)School of Education , University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom, (2)University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, (3)School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Background:  ECHOES is a technology-enhanced learning environment for young children on the autism spectrum, set in a virtual “Magic Garden”, with a programme of learning activities that are presented on a large, multi-touch screen. Within the ECHOES environment the child collaborates with a virtual character (VC) to complete different activities that target social communication, particularly joint attention. The design of the learning activities and planned agent-child interactions within ECHOES are based on goals in the SCERTS (Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support) model (Prizant et al., 2005).

Objectives: The work reported explores whether there were differences in the type and frequency of children’s social communication behaviours, particularly joint attention, over the course of their participation in a programme of ECHOES activities. Between activity variation is also considered.  

Methods:  Summative evaluation studies were conducted in four UK schools and included 43 children in total. We report here on two schools: participants were 6 children with autism and 6 typically developing children (aged 5-6) at a mainstream primary school, and 3 children (aged 7-8) with autism at a special school for children with moderate learning difficulties.  All children completed the BPVS and SCQ before the study. They participated in 7 to 11 sessions in the ECHOES environment, each between 10 and 20 minutes duration. The study used a single-subject design looking for within-child differences during first, middle and final sessions. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected in order to investigate whether children’s communication skills and joint attention improved within the ECHOES environment. Initiation and response to joint attention, reciprocal interactions, imitative behaviours, and other forms of social communication were examined in relation to both the VC and the human social partners working with the child.  An adapted version of the SCERTS Assessment Protocol (SAP) was used as a framework for coding children’s interactions. Interviews were conducted with teachers and support staff about participating children and the overall study.

Results:  Results reflect within-subject outcome data during and at the end of the study. Analysis is ongoing and will be reported in full shortly. Preliminary results reveal promising changes in the children’s joint attention over the course of their interaction within the ECHOES environment, with the biggest change seen in the initiation of social communication both to the human social partner and the VC. Initial results also suggest that different types of activities varied in their effectiveness in promoting initiation. Post-study interviews suggest that in some cases an increase in specific behaviours was observed outwith the ECHOES environment. 

Conclusions: The present study supports previous research (Robins, Dautenhahn, Boekhorst and Billard, 2005; Robins, Dickerson, Stribling and Dautenhahn, 2004) that technological intervention may contribute to the improvement of children’s social communication. The results of this investigation highlighted that a virtual environment can facilitate joint attention and social interaction, for children with autism. The VC may additionally serve as a ‘social mediator’ (Konstantinidis et al., 2009; Fabri, 2006). 


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