New technology helps autistic children play together

Carefully designed technology helped autistic children reveal social skills which otherwise could have remained hidden.

This was one of the findings of Samantha Holt, from the University of Sussex ChatLab, who  presented her research at the British Psychological Society's Division of Developmental Psychology's Annual Conference at the University of Nottingham.

Showing and pointing (often referred to as "joint attention" behaviours) typically emerge in children from about nine months of age. Deficits in these behaviours are often the earliest signs of autism.  Autistic children find playing together very difficult because it requires each child to be aware of what the other is attending to and wanting to do - things which require joint attention.

The research involved four autistic boys aged 5 -7 years from the Autism Unit of a Special school. The children played a picture sorting game in pairs, using two different computer set-ups. The children played one game with a standard computer set-up and one game using the new computer software. The new software (called Separate Control of Shared Space -- SCoSS,  and developed at Sussex on the EPSRC* -funded Riddles and ShareIT projects) displayed both children's games at the same time and encouraged the children to take account of what their partner was doing, so that they could play the game together.

The results showed that the SCoSS software supported the autistic children so that they were able to show more active awareness of their partner, through joint attention behaviours which were not displayed using a more typical set-up.

The results demonstrated that without this support, the same child could appear to have limited awareness of their partner and to be unable to play the game.

Samantha said "I was very excited to see that the autistic children were able to work together with the support of the SCoSS technology. My hope is that future research can investigate if such computer support can help the children to develop their social skills."

The paper was given as part of a symposium convened by Dr Nicola Yuill,who is Samantha's doctoral supervisor at Sussex. The symposium, entitled, 'What technology can tell us about developmental theory: typical and atypical development', also included papers by Sussex DPhil William Farr (on his Topobo project) and visiting research fellow Amanda Carr (on collaborative problem solving).


Notes for editors

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 15 September 2009