Technology Teaches Autistic Kids

By Yolanda Heiberger

autismMIXED EMOTIONS: Interactive games help children with autism spectrum disorders improve their social skills by focusing on key facial features.Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) face a daunting array of cognitive and emotional challenges, and none is more obvious than their difficulty with social interaction. Unable to grasp the nuances of communication, they find it hard to relate to others, to decode the frowns, winks, smirks, and other cues that allow us to read other people and respond appropriately. Traditional therapies teach this code through hours of face-to-face interaction, but UAB psychologists are using a new method: a computer program called FaceSay™.

Created by Symbionica, a private company, FaceSay™ is a series of interactive games using computer-animated characters based on real human faces. Each game teaches children where to look for the cues important in social interaction, such as eye gaze and facial expression.

In a recent study, children who used the program showed significant improvement in their ability to recognize faces, facial expressions, and emotions. "The results indicate the potential value of computer-based therapies for children with ASD," says UAB psychologist Fred Biasini, Ph.D., who studied FaceSay™ in collaboration with Maria Hopkins, Ph.D.

In the study, two groups of children—25 children with autism and 24 children with Asperger syndrome, a milder form of ASD—were given 20-minute computer sessions twice a week for at least six weeks. The children with autism became more adept at social interaction and recognizing faces, while the Asperger group showed improvements in those two areas as well as in emotional recognition. "Because the Asperger group had higher cognitive functioning than the autism group, the difference in performance wasn't a completely unexpected finding," says Hopkins.

Biasini says this research has important implications for future ASD therapies. "A primary advantage of the computer program is that it's predictable and controlled, which is helpful and important to children with ASD. Live social groups—a traditional therapy—are inherently unpredictable and can present challenges for these children," he notes. "Also, the computer tasks performed by children in the study were brief in comparison to the time that might have been spent in social groups to achieve the same gains—we saw benefits that might have taken months to achieve in social groups."

FaceSay™ is now available to schools and providers and a home version is due out later this year. There are also plans to conduct further studies to determine how long children retain gains made with the intervention, says Biasini. "We believe computer-based therapy holds exciting potential for children with ASD as a cost-effective, time-efficient intervention that achieves results."