BTN LiveBIG: Penn State powers up social skills of kids with autism

BTN LiveBIG: Penn State powers up social skills of kids with autism

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When interacting with people on the autism spectrum, it’s important to remember that they have a unique perspective. It’s not that their brains don’t work correctly, but rather that they work differently. Dr. Suzy Scherf, professor of psychology at Penn State, was reminded of that recently when she encountered one of the students in her senior seminar who has Asperger syndrome.

“This is a small class of only 16 students,” she explained. “I was wearing white the other day. And I waved to him in the hallway just as I was walking into class.

“He just squinted at me and said, ‘Hi. You don’t normally wear white, do you?’ And I said, ‘I haven’t worn white in a very long time.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s why I didn’t recognize you.’ He’s not recognizing me by my face. He’s using other kinds of cues — that I normally wear, black, say — to remember who I am.”

That distinctive outlook is what makes people with autism special. However, it also frequently causes problems for them when they’re interacting with others, as they don’t always pick up on social cues the rest of us do.

To help children with autism better understand these social cues, Scherf and colleagues at Penn State developed a video game to teach them how to do things like read facial expressions and make eye contact. They came up with the idea while running trials of a program that involved “incredibly boring” training.

“We started employing some basic principles of gaming to try to enhance the motivation of the kids,” she said. “We built a narrative and we talked to them about chasing criminals, and we told them that they have to figure out who the criminal was going to be.”

From there, the team developed a more technologically sophisticated game. So far, they’ve seen great results, and much of the “proof” is in the smiles on the kids’ faces.

“The tools of games are really great because they are designed to foster intrinsic motivation,” Scherf explained. “That is really what the science of gaming is all about: How [do] we get you to be excited to continue to learn something that’s really hard for you?”

Watch the one-minute video above to learn more about how this team is taking autism treatment to the next level.

By Brian Summerfield

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