Training with avatars: New online game to teach autistic kids about emotions
Parents of autistic children can now look forward to better communication with their child thanks to a new interactive online game being developed by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin. The game will help kids with autism spectrum disorders to better understand emotions—both their own and others’.
Children with autism spectrum disorders have trouble communicating and connecting with others, in part because they are unable to read facial expressions on those around them and are unable to identify their own emotions. There are many different types of autism spectrum disorders, but as a whole the disorders affect almost 1 percent of American children, so finding ways to help autistic kids communicate is important for many families.
“Over the past year I’ve worked closely with numerous families who have a child with autism,” said Yan Zhang, assistant professor at the UT School of Information and one of the researchers developing the new game. “They are so caught up in the difficulties of daily routines that they can’t even fathom the chance of getting to have a meaningful discourse with their child. This would be life-changing for them.”
This helps the child both to recognize his or her own emotional reactions to the situation and to recognize the meaning behind others’ facial expressions.
Although there are currently computer games for autistic children, the new game under development does much more to facilitate autistic kids’ emotional learning than previous games have.
The game works like this: A webcam is trained on the child’s face, and an avatar is created that reflects the child’s expression. The avatar then goes into various social situations that the child may encounter in everyday life, and the child is able to see the expression he or she wears in these situations. This helps the child both to recognize his or her own emotional reactions to the situation and to recognize the meaning behind others’ facial expressions.
The game also offers an option that allows kids to see their own face next to the avatar’s face instead of controlling the avatar’s facial expression, which helps them to see whether their expression matches that of the avatar. This can help autistic kids to learn how to make the appropriate facial response to a given situation.
Another improvement on current games is that this game adapts itself to the needs of an individual child. “For example,” said Zhang, “if a child is playing the same game mode repeatedly, in a manner that is not increasing learning, the game system will adapt the level or mode accordingly to encourage learning.”
Two modes of the game are currently under development, and will be beta tested in the coming months. Researchers have not yet announced when the game will be available to the public.