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Virtual playtime.
A child interacts with an artificial kid.

Artificial Playmates for Autistic Children

BOSTON--Children with autism spectrum disorder are unable to sustain play, make-believe games, and fluid social interaction--at least with real people. But psychologist and linguist Justine Cassell of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, says that interaction with virtual peers releases hidden social skills in these children.

A virtual child is a cartoonish-looking, gender-neutral 8-year-old that appears on a TV or projection screen. When it interacts with a real child, half of the action takes place in the real world, and half in the virtual world. Thanks to sensors on the toys, the children can pass dolls back and forth between worlds, and the virtual child "watches" the real child as he or she plays. The virtual child can also speak in a recorded child's voice and even uses lifelike expressions and gestures.

At a press briefing yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (ScienceNOW's publisher), Cassell said that she and her colleagues originally developed virtual children 10 years ago, in part to study how literacy and conversation skills develop in normal children. But "every time I presented the work," she said, a parent of an autistic child would come to her and ask, 'Please, can I get a copy of this software for my child?' "

Indeed, the group's newest research, presented at a session this morning, demonstrates that interaction with virtual playmates may unlock social aptitude in autistic children. During unsupervised play with typical children, autistic children don't fill in pauses in conversation, nor do they ask or answer questions in a natural flow. But with a virtual playmate, autistic children begin to do all these things after as little as 20 minutes. In another experiment, the autistic children were given the opportunity to "become" the virtual child. When they hid behind a curtain and manipulated the digital child by means of a control panel, their virtual stand-ins interacted with typical children in socially sensitive ways.

Cassell says autistic children may be more at ease with virtual playmates because the virtual children are more predictable, which could make them seem less threatening. Preliminary brain scans show that typical people have to think harder to relate to a virtual human than to a real one, and Cassell speculates that the reverse may be true in autistic children. But will the autistic children's newfound social savvy translate to subsequent interactions with real children? "That's the million-dollar question," Cassell told Science.

Theoretical linguist Cynthia Zocca, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, who attended Cassell's presentation, enjoyed seeing the role of linguistics in creating virtual children capable of conversation. She says it's nice to see how the work is helping children in the real world.

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