UAB study: game helps kids with autism detect emotions

An interactive computer program helps some kids with autism spectrum disorders learn concepts behind facial expressions.

Children with autism spectrum disorders are better able to recognize faces, facial expressions and emotions with the help of an interactive computer-software program called FaceSay, according to newly published research from psychologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

ASD includes a range of developmental disorders such as autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders. Children with ASD often avoid eye contact with others, which prevents them from perceiving and understanding the emotions of others and hinders their ability to remember faces.

“The software features interactive games that let children with ASD practice recognizing the facial expressions of an avatar,” says Maria Hopkins, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. “The exercises encourage users to focus on the upper half of a person’s face where crucial nonverbal information and emotions are expressed through the eyes.”

Hopkins and her research partner Fred Biasini, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology, tested 25 children with autism and 24 children with Asperger’s Syndrome. The children, 44 boys and five girls ages 6-15, participated in an average 20-minute computer-training session with three FaceSay interactive games twice weekly for at least six weeks. Their results were published in the February 2011 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“Our results show that the exercises within this software can have a positive impact,” Biasini says.

Nancy Meisler’s son Mitchell participated in the study three years ago, when he was 13. “Mitchell cannot only tell when I am happy or angry, but he is better able to recognize more complex emotions, like when I am concerned or confused,” Meisler says.

The UAB team found that the children with Asperger’s Syndrome who used the software made significant improvements in their ability to read facial expressions; children with autism improved but less so.

The team also examined whether or not the children using the software understood the concepts behind certain facial expressions; children in both the autism and Asperger groups significantly improved their ability to recognize emotions.

“The children who worked with the software showed improvements in their playground interactions with other kids,” Hopkins says. “They used more eye contact and did a better job of following playmates’ eye gaze.”

Meisler and the other study participants completed the training sessions using computer workstations at Mitchell’s Place, a Birmingham-area center that specializes in services for children with ASD.

This is the first of three studies conducted by Hopkins and Biasini investigating the impacts of the FaceSay program, which was created by Symbionica, LLC.

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