Virtual Pal Helps Autistic Kids Make Social Connections

Researchers at Northwestern University are helping autistic children participate in conversations by using life-sized, computer-animated virtual peers
Paul LimaSpecial to Globe and Mail Update Published on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009 8:47AM EDT Last updated on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009 8:55AM EDT

An early childhood neurological disorder, autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disabilities in North America – with a new case diagnosed nearly every 20 minutes. Autism frequently impairs a child’s ability to communicate with others. Parents might not hear their autistic child say “mommy” or “daddy” and find it difficult to determine what’s bothering their child, let alone figure out what the child is thinking.

Autistic children tend to fixate. For instance, some colour like crazy for hours; most are enthralled by videos and computer games. There is no medical cure for the disorder.

Researchers at ArticuLab, part of the communication and engineering schools at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, are studying how humans communicate with and through technology and are helping autistic children participate in conversations by using virtual peers, life-sized, computer-animated children capable of carrying on realistic conversations.

Virtual peers invite autistic children to interact and play games. For instance, researchers might show an autistic child virtual peers playing and then invite the child to join in. Interaction between child and virtual peer are controlled by video game interfaces and Hewlett Packard’s TouchSmart PCs with touch-sensitive screens that recognize touch gestures. Studying the effects of virtual peers may help researchers understand the underlying mechanisms of communication in autistic children and help children build communication skills.

“Working with the ArticuLab is a great opportunity for HP to explore the critical intersection between technology and medical research,” said Michael Takemura, director of the HP accessibility and aging program office. The office co-ordinates efforts to adapt technology to address needs of people with disabilities and age-related limitations.

As slanted sidewalks, or curb cuts, are used to make streets more accessible to mobility challenged persons, adaptive technology, or electronic curb cuts, can be used to integrate people with special needs into the workforce and society.

“There is no Swiss army knife technology product that will meet the special needs of everyone,” Takemura says. For instance, some people with mobility challenges need keyboard keys that are difficult to press so they don’t press keys multiple times; others need keys that are easy to press so they can actually type.
Says Frances West, director of the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center in Boston, Massachusetts: “We believe technology can be the equalizer for people with special needs or disabilities.” IBM is no stranger to adaptive technology. The company hired its first special needs employee in 1914 – a visually impaired person who used a Braille typewriter developed in house.

IBM adaptive technology includes computer screen enhancements like the Easy Web Browser. Developed by IBM’s Tokyo research lab, it helps people with limited vision use the Web by converting text to speech and allowing users to customize the size and color of Web content. Easy Web Browser can speak text in 12 languages, including English, Portuguese and Spanish.

“ We believe technology can be the equalizer for people with special needs or disabilities ”— Frances West, director of the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center

The Easy Web Browser is not for blind people because it requires the use of a mouse. Software such as the JAWS screen reader, made byFlorida, California-based Freedom Scientific, enables the blind to surf the Internet and various applications without a mouse. Approximately one in four of Freedom Scientific’s employees has a visual impairment. The employees work in every facet of operations–technical support, product testing and development, sales, customer service and quality assurance.

Apple Inc. has built many accessibility solutions into its products. VoiceOver, screen-reading technology that’s part of Mac OS X, provides voice description and offers plug-and-play support for Braille displays. For those who find it difficult to use a mouse, Spotlight search technology makes it easy to launch applications and find files, images, calendar events and even Wikipedia entries using the keyboard. Students that have difficulty reading can use Apple’s Text to Speech to hear a word or paragraph as they’re seeing it onscreen. In addition, popular products like iPod, iPhone and Apple TV support closed captioning.

Enabling people with special needs goes beyond adapting technology, Takemura says. “We also look at how people select and purchase and get technical support.” For instance, HP has a special technical support number that people with cognitive or age-related disabilities can call. Support representatives have been trained to work with people who require more assistance solving technical issues. People with hearing issues can call tech support using telephone relay, an operator-assisted service that allows hearing-impaired individuals to place calls to standard telephone users via a keyboard. Typed messages are relayed as voice messages by the operator who then types the reply for the hearing impaired person to read on a screen.

While adaptive technologies help people with special needs, able-bodied people can also benefit, says Takemura. When HP replaced two latches on laptops with one latch so people with the use of only one hand could open them, it made it easier for everyone to open the laptops. In addition, HP saved production costs and there were fewer mechanical problems with latches. “Everybody won,” he says.

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