Researchers from the University of Massachusetts are developing a “virtual child” that can be used to train professionals to work with autistic children.
Nearly 1 in 50 children in the United States is diagnosed with ASD, but the number of people trained to help them is not proportional to the demand. The disparity is largely due to the one-on-one nature of behavioural treatment and the wide range of symptoms as autism is a spectrum. Associate Professors Richard Serna and Charles Hamad from the University of Massachusetts have set on addressing this shortage with the help of technology.
The researchers will use a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to create a “virtual child”: an immersive, interactive software to help professionals learn key treatment techniques of behavioural interventions for autistic children.
The software will feature a virtual child, programmed with relevant learning difficulties, who can interact with the trainees. “The software will be useful in college classrooms, for new employees of agencies, special education teachers, paraprofessionals in the schools and even parents”, says the principal investigator, Dr Richard Serna.
The users are trained to implement the right procedures in the appropriate sequence, for instance give praise each time the virtual child performs the desired skill or behavior to reinforce his learning. The software is adaptable to the users’ responses. If they choose the appropriate action, the system will allow them to move to the next lesson, otherwise, it will provide feedback until the user has mastered the technique.
Once they have developed and evaluated a basic prototype, Serna and Hamad will seek additional grant funding to develop it into a fully realised product. “We’ll add voice control, more features, different virtual children, more languages, more interventions and more behaviors and levels of difficulty,” says Dr Serna.