Allen Institute's iSocial shows promise for children with autism

Thursday, December 16, 2010 | 7:24 p.m. CST; updated 7:34 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 16, 2010

COLUMBIA — As the parent of a child with an autism spectrum disorder, it pains Tyeece Little to see her son rejected by other children.

“That’s probably the hardest part,” said Little, whose only child, Carleton, has Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger's is a disorder characterized by social awkwardness, delayed motor skills and unusual speaking patterns.

One experience stands out. When Carleton was in middle school, he approached a group of boys and asked to join them. His mother, who observed the exchange, said the response was a “sucker punch.”

“He went up to see what they were doing, and this kid was very insensitive," said Little, 46. "He said ‘you’re not invited to play.’”

"I don't want to witness that again."

Since then, Carleton, now 15, has joined a building social confidence group at the Thompson Center for Autism. The group helps children communicate with each other and learn what is socially appropriate.

There Carleton discovered iSocial, a groundbreaking, virtual learning program under development at MU's Allen Institute, part of  the College of Education. The interactive online experience teaches social skills to children with autism.

Using a 3-D world where users create avatars, the program teaches children to interact with others and practice social rules such as turn taking.

Little realized this was an opportunity she didn’t want Carleton to pass up.

“I thought it’d be kind of fun for him,” she said. “But I also thought it would be good for him to see other people that are like him — other boys in particular.”

The virtual world presents a group of users with tasks such as designing a restaurant. They then make decisions about organizing the menu or arranging furniture.

As they make their choices, the virtual world changes. The process helps them practice teamwork and cooperation.

Little said she noticed Carleton’s progress after two sessions.

“He became more self-aware of how he comes across to people,” she said. “He can make adjustments if something happens. He can think of the other person’s reaction and how he contributed to it.”

Carleton said the experience was fun and educational, but he also liked the feeling of helping other children.

“In some sense, it feels good to be a part of something that could be great,” he said. “It’s being part of a history almost.”

Jim Laffey, leader of the iSocial project, said he believes the potential is also there to extend it for children to use independently, without a facilitator or other users online. To learn empathy, for example, a student would practice recognizing facial expressions.

Because it is Web-based, developers hope iSocial will become a tool used by schools and parents in both urban and rural Missouri.

Alan Baumgartner, 56, is an outspoken advocate for bringing iSocial in the schools. Watching his daughter, Abby, struggle in a rural school system made shortfalls in autism education apparent to him.

“I know what our families go through,” said Baumgartner, who lives in Auxvasse. “The rural areas especially cannot afford to have teachers that are trained to deal strictly with children with autism, and this is where iSocial can reach out.”

Little voiced similar concerns about her son’s public school experience.

“He constantly found himself in the principal’s office for disciplinary issues,” Little said. “The message they were sending was that he was a bad kid.”

After speaking with representatives from the Missouri Department of Mental Health, Baumgartner said he wants to get support from state legislators.

“The economy is so bad right now, Mental Health does not have money,” he said.

ISocial requires high bandwidth and computers that can handle its high-tech design. Though research and development is operating on $1.7 million from Autism Speaks and the Institute of Education Sciences, the Allen Institute is not responsible for the cost of putting the program in schools.

While parents and developers are anxious to see the benefits of iSocial, Carleton expressed concerns that taking the program into schools would separate students with autism from their peers and reinforce negative stereotypes.

“I do think that the future potential is interesting,” he said. “But I think that if you label autism in schools, that’s almost going to create a prejudice.”

His mother concurred.

“People still think of autism as someone who is noncommunicative and hits their head against the wall,” Little said. “Unfortunately that’s the image people have.”

Laffey said that the program could possibly be introduced as an after-school type of activity.

“We could envision, in the future, some type of a hybrid system,” he said.

Perhaps there could be a club-like atmosphere where students could connect with others and be able to have a social exchange online, Laffey said.

Completion of the construction phase of iSocial is scheduled for June 2011. After that, Laffey said field testing will begin.

“We know this’ll work,” he said. “We just don’t necessarily know how to make it work yet, so we have to keep improving it.”

But, he added, “early results suggest to us that there’s something really special here that we’re doing.”

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