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Children with autism may learn from 'virtual peers'
Date:2/29/2008

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Using virtual peers -- animated life-sized children that simulate the behaviors and conversation of typically developing children -- Northwestern University researchers are developing interventions designed to prepare children with autism for interactions with real-life children.

Justine Cassell, professor of communication studies and electrical engineering and computer science, recently presented a preliminary study on the work at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Children with high-functioning autism may be able to give you a lecture on a topic of great interest to them but they cant carry on a contingent -- or two-way -- conversation, said Cassell, director of Northwesterns Center for Technology and Social Behavior.

Cassell and researcher Andrea Tartaro collected data from six children with high-functioning autism aged 7 to 11 as they engaged in play during an hour-long session with a real-life child, and with a virtual peer named Sam.

In an analysis of those interactions, they found that children with autism produced more and more contingent sentences when they spoke with the virtual peer, while their sentences did not become increasingly contingent when they were paired with the real-life children.

Certainly were not saying that virtual peers make the best playmates for children with autism, said Tartaro. The overall goal is for the children with autism to generalize the skills they learn in practice sessions with virtual peers to meaningful interactions with real-world children.

Nor are Northwestern researchers saying they can teach contingency -- appropriate back and forth conversation -- in a single session. But their findings hold promise that virtual peers can be useful in helping children with autism develop communication and social skills.

And virtual peers have some distinct advantages over real-life children when it comes to
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Contact: Wendy Leopold
w-leopold@northwestern.edu
847-491-4890
Northwestern University
Source:Eurekalert  

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