Designing and Evaluating Interactive Agents as Social Skills Tutors for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Designing and Evaluating Interactive Agents as Social Skills Tutors for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Marissa Milne (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia), Martin Luerssen (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia), Trent Lewis (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia), Richard Leibbrandt (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia) and David Powers (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-617-6.ch002
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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) makes communication and social interaction very difficult for those affected. Existing studies have reported positive results for teaching social skills to children with ASD using human-controlled virtual agents and language skills using autonomous agents. Here we combine these approaches and investigate the potential of autonomous agents as social skills tutors. A system for audio-visually synthesising an agent is developed towards this purpose and utilised together with two tutoring modules that we specifically designed for teaching conversation skills and how to deal with bullying. Following evaluation, children’s thoughts about their experience with the virtual tutor were investigated through use of a survey. The positive feedback and the modest but significant improvements in test scores for both modules suggest that this strategy for teaching social skills has much potential and that further research and development in this area would be eminently worthwhile.
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2 Background

2.1 The Nature of Autism

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder characterised by the ‘triad’ of impairments, encompassing impairments of communication and social skills as well as a tendency towards repeated patterns of interest and behaviour (American Psychiatric Association [DSM-IV-TR], 2000). Affected individuals may interpret language very literally, causing misunderstanding when sarcasm and metaphors are involved (Rapin and Tuchman, 2008).

Children with Autism Syndrome Disorder (ASD) frequently have difficulties in using and understanding non-verbal cues such as body language, gaze and facial expression, which reduces their ability to develop friendships and other relationships. Individuals with ASD can also find changes to their routines and environment quite confronting and stressful, as they struggle to generalise their skills to new situations. New concepts need to be taught to them explicitly, step by step.

Implications of this ‘triad’ of impairments are vital in committing to appropriate training that can help a wide range of individuals on the spectrum. Conversation management, including initiation and turn-taking, constitutes a particular challenge to such individuals and can be taught directly. Furthermore, considering the atypical behaviours some individuals exhibit, social training can also be of value, especially since autistic children are easily exposed to bullying and therefore particularly vulnerable. Such training can be performed by a human tutor, but there is a substantial time cost to it. Technology could offer valuable assistance in this instance.

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