How an innovative performance animation technology can improve learning outcomes by encouraging young autistics to better understand and lower their anxiety.

 In this first in a three-part series on autism and anxiety, we discussed how anxiety and its accompanying emotions can impede development, and how Invirtua’s interactive avatars can help. Also included is a live demo of an Avatar Adventure, featuring Marley and Leslie Baldwin.

Here is our recording of the recent webinar by Gary Jesch and Leslie Baldwin – Autism  and Anxiety Part 1. You can find a full transcript of our conversation below the video.

Greetings and Gary’s Background [0:0:00]

Gary Jesch:

Well, hello, everybody welcome. I am very glad that you’re here today with me. My name is Gary Jesch, and I am the founder of Invirtua. I’d like to welcome you all here today to our program about Autism and Anxiety.

Our company is Invirtua. We also run a website: autismanimated.com, which is a community website for people that are interested in what’s going on currently, regarding Autism research and therapy centers, what new websites we found, and posts about autism articles and collaboration amongst folks. We have about 150 community members right now on the site, so drop by and see us there.

And on to my presentation today: I’m the only one here in my office, so I’m going to be looking around away from the camera a little bit. Don’t let that cause you any alarm. It’s just me doing my job here as producer, while I am operating this webinar, this session that we’re having. I’m going to be bringing out our guests, and before I do that, let me just take a second to tell you a little bit about myself and what I’m doing here. And let’s see, that means I have to bring up my first slide, doesn’t it?

So, here I am at the controls of my technology called the 3D Digital Puppeteer™ and you’re looking over my shoulder and you can see that this is the technology that I’ve used for more than 25 years now to do live presentations of interactive avatars, primarily at trade shows and corporate meetings, things that are kind of related to marketing, and on the side of entertainment.

Well, a few years ago—about seven years ago, to be exact—I was working for a client at a psychiatric convention in San Francisco. And one of my friends from across the aisle came over and he said, ‘Hey, you know, Gary, have you ever thought about doing something like this to help kids maybe with Autism?’ And I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I have.’

Back in about 1997, I was reading these articles as I was doing research and preparing for presentations. And the researchers were saying, you know, one of these days, people are going to be using these interactive avatars to help kids with Autism get over some of the problems that they’re having with Anxiety. Wow, that was in 1997. 25 years ago, just about.

And so, I took that to heart and I created this company called Invirtua, which is set up specifically to offer that out into the public. And so today, we’re going to tell you a little bit about what we’ve learned about Autism and Anxiety and also the solution that we’ve developed that we’re making accessible now to parents—to moms and dads of autistic children all around the world, actually. We’re really excited about it.

One of the things that I’ve noticed over the last year or so is that the language we use when speaking about Autism is changing somewhat. It used to be, a few years ago, that the proper way to say it was ‘a child with Autism.’ And recently, it’s been brought to our attention that those that are Autistic prefer that we say, ‘an Autistic child.’

And so, if we don’t quite say it perfectly every single time, we just want to let you know that we totally respect where you’re coming from, and it’s no action of disrespect. It’s more a habit of language that you may hear from us, but we’re doing our best to correct that. And we’ll go through this presentation with total respect for those who are autistic and their autistic children. Because we’re all about the kids basically.

So as far as the other aspects of my own personal life, I live in Carson City, Nevada, that’s where I’m coming to you from today. I’ve invested a lot of time and money to kind of get this thing up and running and I think we’re really close now. And so I wanted to invite you all at the end of this presentation to come and take a personal demo with me of this technology and have a chat with me and see if it might be appropriate for your child. So that being said, let’s let me join you in welcoming my new senior partner here at Invirtua, Leslie Baldwin. Hi, Leslie, how are you today?

Introducing Leslie Baldwin [0:05:09]

Leslie Baldwin:

I’m doing great! How about you, Gary?

Gary Jesch:

Oh, it is really great to have you here. We need that kind of feminine influence here at Invirtua very much and you’ve been just a joy to work with. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Leslie Baldwin:

Well, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here. And I am a parent of two adult boys. And I have been working with children and families for about 30 years and about 25 years with children that have been diagnosed with Autism.

And one of my favorite positions I ever had was when I worked at Texas Children’s Hospital as the manager of a therapeutic program for children with Autism. I think our youngest client was about 10 months old prior to diagnosis, and then our oldest was about 18 or 19. And it was a really unique experience because I got to work not only with other educators, but also with speech, OT, and PT professionals. It was highly individualized therapy, and also multidisciplinary.

So, I was able to gain a unique perspective to be able to see how, you know, really working with a child in a multidisciplinary way worked well. And I am on the board of several advocacy non-profits, and I am from Michigan. I lived the past 15 years in Texas, which I love. But I just recently moved back. So, I’m back in my home state and enjoying some temperatures that are a little cooler than Texas right now. I know that’s certainly true for the summer. 

Gary Jesch:

Yeah, exactly. And you know, Leslie, you’re joining a small but powerful cohort of professionals, scientists, and Autism moms and therapists that have been with us here at Invirtua all along, including notable scientists like Dr. Tom Buggey out of the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, who’s been published many times in his studies around video modeling, and autistic children. 

And actually, Tom’s on our call today. And we’re really excited to have him here. Tom, thank you so much. And we’ll be sure to hear from you as we go further into our program. We’re going to have a Q&A session at the end of this, so let’s present the ideas that we have here. I’ll hand it back over to you, Leslie, and tell us a little bit about what’s going on.

Overview of the Webinar [0:08:10]

Leslie Baldwin:

Well, today, we really wanted to look at autism and its relationship with anxiety, and while we all experience anxiety in our daily lives, I think one of the challenges with autistic individuals is many, many experience a very high level of anxiety. And anxiety itself is not harmful—sometimes it can be a good motivator. But when it interferes with your ability to function, in your home or at school or in a different environment, that’s when it becomes a problem.

And so, we’ll look at some of the reasons behind high levels of anxiety, but also at what we can offer to help some of these kiddos that are really dealing with the disabling side of anxiety. And I’ve seen some really amazing work that you have done, Gary that really made me so excited to see how well these children responded.

Gary Jesch:

Thank you, Leslie. And just to be clear, anxiety is an emotion, a feeling, right, that we—that everybody—experiences and goes through.

And so, what we’re speaking about here is kind of like a high level of anxiety that autistic children seem to be confronted with and have to deal with starting at a very early age in many cases.

Later on, this coming month in June, we’ll actually be doing another presentation about clinically diagnosed anxiety. But right here, you know, what we’re really speaking of is like nervousness, overwhelm, and maybe worry…

Leslie Baldwin:

Or fear of things.

Gary Jesch:

And oftentimes these feelings of anxiety can even be related to the feeling of stage fright, and I know that’s the kind of the way that I relate to it when it comes to autistic kids because that was one of my own personal problems 25 years ago, and I was getting into this entertainment deal, and it was actually showing up as shaky hands and my stomach doing flips while I’m getting ready to go on stage or to have my avatars appear. 

Over the years, what I’ve seen is that autistic kids, both boys and girls, are also going through the same sensations, and they don’t really know or realize what’s going on and often the parents don’t either. So what we’re going to do today is to discuss that, how it can impact a child’s development, and then some methods including our own, of ‘distracting away from the anxiety,’ which seems to be a fairly resourceful method of calming it down, kind of removing that fight or flight mechanism from the equation, if you will. 

So really, what are the kinds of challenges, Leslie, that you’ve seen in your experience?

Challenges Associated with Anxiety [0:11:59]

Leslie Baldwin: 

Well, what I see is anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. When we talk about anxiety, and a lot of the children I’ve worked with, we look at those that might be over reactive to their environment. They might be under reactive, they might be mixed up, and what it does, though, is it can really impede a child to be able to attend and learn within the classroom, maybe even at home. They really lose self-confidence when they’re not picking up on things, and they’re not moving forward.

Also, one of the major challenges for many autistic children is joint attention with someone else. And so, you know if you have high anxiety, it’s very difficult to stay engaged with another person; you’ll see the kids moving around quickly or just doing a lot of avoidance. It can also really impede a child’s ability to communicate effectively, and that goes for both verbal and non-verbal communication.

But also, you know, when you want to have a child engaged in learning, you want them to be able to do some problem-solving. And when you have high anxiety, it really obstructs that ability. If anxiety is really high, it can obstruct their ability to learn and to do some problem-solving that we all need to be able to do in daily life.

Gary Jesch:

Exactly, you know, it’s going to be a big factor in everything their entire lives. You know, and this is actually reported by many autistic people.

I remember when, after that psychiatrists’ conference, I was directed to Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Ron Suskind, and his book, Life, Animated, which laid out the problems that he and his son, Owen were having with just basic communication.

And so, Ron’s response was to set things up so that his son could watch Disney movies down in the basement on the VCR and play every single frame of every Disney movie—they could get their hands on all the credits and everything. And it turned out that these Disney animations, were like a door that started to open up a little bit into the world. That was a total improvement over Owen’s world before, I think, about the age of eight years old or so.

Leslie Baldwin:

Yeah, and I think it’s important that we as adults recognize that we need to meet every child where they’re at, no matter what level they’re at or what they’re experiencing, and figure out what they love because if you can join them, and they know you’re there for them, and you’re enthusiastic, and you want to know more, I think it does open a doorway.

You know, no matter what their love might be. And certainly through the Disney films, I think that was a great way for Ron to connect with his son. I think, overall, just being able to address some of the anxiety can make a huge difference.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan’s Learning Tree [0:15:48]

Gary Jesch: 

Exactly. So, in your experience, working at the Texas Children’s Hospital, you came across an infographic that I think really helps us understand a little bit more about anxiety’s impact, and I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at that, and just see going from where we’re all at down at the foundational level, to what potential might be, so maybe you’d take us through this.

Leslie Baldwin:

Sure. I think it’s important to understand learning from a developmental perspective. This is a graphic that was adapted by Dr. Stanley Greenspan for this webinar.

And Dr. Stanley Greenspan wrote Engaging Autism. He’s was a leader in the field of psychologists for working with children with Autism along with Serena Wieder. And our program at Texas Children’s was modeled after DIR, which is a Developmental Individualized Relationship-based model also called Floortime by Dr. Greenspan. And so, for me as an educator, and understanding how kids learn, I felt like this was the perfect graphic to kind of demonstrate what we’re talking about today.

First of all, if you want to look at the tree, what we have are at the root are emotional and physical regulation. Now, if you have high anxiety levels, we’re talking about dysregulation of emotional and physical regulation, where you know, something is going on and you know, where you need to be able to bring it in to be calm, and studies have shown us that if you’re dysregulated, it’s much more difficult to learn.

There are many underlying reasons, and we call these ‘core capacities’ for every human being. And that’s how your sensory processing system is working for you: your visual, your auditory, how you’re taking in information, kinesthetic learning modes, motor planning, and sequencing. It all has to come together in order for anybody to be able to attend and learn.

Now, the challenge is, for autistic individuals, when there are differences between these systems, it makes it a little more difficult to do some of the things that might come a little easier to some of us.

The other thing we’re looking at is when you have this type of dysregulation, and emotionally and physically, it’s not very surprising that your anxiety is going to go up. And sometimes that’s okay, you know, a little anxiety isn’t that much of a problem, but when it becomes overwhelming, that’s when you see it becomes a real impediment for a child to stay in a relationship in the moment, and be able to take in information and learn from it.

What we want to do is help lessen that roadblock so that we can bring that anxiety level down, help them regain that emotional and physical regulation, so they can keep going up that developmental ladder.

Gary Jesch: 

So, there have been a bunch of studies, Leslie, on anxiety in autistic children. Some of those studies recently that we’re seeing are revealing that there’s a structure in the brain that’s called the amygdala that is responsible, in all humans, for the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. The emotions that come up as a result of brain chemistry that we inherited and evolved for many generations, told us, ‘Run from the tiger!’, you know, save our lives, right?

So that fear served us in those days, and as people look at ‘fight or flight’ nowadays. It’s a much different way of life. But those mechanisms, are still in there. The studies that they’ve done are indicating that autistic children actually have heightened levels of this, and the brain chemistry that’s associated with it, which interferes with that regulation.

Leslie Baldwin:

Yeah.

Gary Jesch:

So, you know, that’s part of what we want to tackle here today. We’re not going into anybody’s brain and changing the emotions. But what we have found is that if we can help teach kids a coping ability, or ways of distracting themselves, or even creativity, which is a great alternative to being afraid, then these kind of more what we call ‘resourceful responses’ to fear and worry and overwhelm are going to be useful to them their entire lives.

Let me give you one more look at this tree and Leslie’s going to explain what comes like what’s on the other side, that breakthrough side of this anxiety obstacle.

Leslie Baldwin:

Okay. So, what we want to achieve, for every individual, is getting the anxiety low enough, so that we are going to lengthen an ability to have intentional two-way communication.

And again, I say verbal and non-verbal. You want to get into a back and forth flow, and when there’s a lot of anxiety, it’s difficult for a child to stay in that flow with someone else.

You also want to look at what we began with at an early age: Shared social problem-solving, rather than just doing it on their own—being able to be in a relationship where someone is supporting and guiding them, but that they are learning how to problem-solve. That leads to lengthening, engagement, a back and forth flow of communication. And then we move on to, as you get into school age, the logical thinking, where it’s really important to be able to put all of that together.

But you know, the challenges when we see the anxiety go up, the ability to stay regulated, and stay engaged is a lot more difficult. And that goes for everybody, not just autistic children, but certainly they are very much impacted by the anxiety and that feeling of dysregulation.

Gary Jesch:

And on the flip side of that, which is my pretty much my mantra, is ‘when the anxiety goes down, the learning goes up.’

Leslie Baldwin:

Yes, absolutely. I think you can help them, and I think that’s the interesting phenomena in working with the live puppets and avatars. It immediately helps a child. I think it’s so enticing and so intriguing; you really see the anxiety melt away. It’s quite magical, which I’m excited to see as an educator. Sometimes it’s really difficult to help a child move forward, especially when they’re dysregulated.

The kids are able to do some things that otherwise in a different environment are difficult, then they gain confidence, and then they can generalize that experience with the avatar to other experiences and environments.

Gary Jesch:

Exactly. If you’re taking a look then at human potential, this applies to everybody. Look at the things that, that people have moved into: Autistic kids have gone into such amazing areas on their own—of creativity and reading and learning and writing and performing, all these various things. We know celebrities and so forth all around the world that claim, ‘I’m Asperger’s’ or ‘I’m autistic’, you know.

And so, what has happened is they’ve managed to regulate through the anxiety that they might have had as a child, with help from people.

Leslie Baldwin:

Absolutely.

Gary Jesch: 

So, excellent reason to work on this: It’s the potential of all those kids all around the world and that’s why we’re excited to be in this situation, Leslie.

Leslie Baldwin:

I am excited too.

The Feelings Wheel [0:25:06] 

Gary Jesch:

So, the other graphic that I wanted to show people is what we call the ‘Feelings Wheel.’ We’re going to talk about emotions and feelings a little bit. If you see one of yours on here, hopefully it’s in the happy section right now, you know, or the curious section. The section that we’re really talking about here on this Feelings Wheel is in the anxiety area, obviously. But just to call attention to what the wheel is showing us, at the center are the more generalized descriptions of the emotion, and so we could lump all emotions and feelings into just, you know, four, or six or eight broad categories. And then the ring around that is where we’re talking about getting a little bit more specific, in terms of the emotion, and then the outer ring is where we’re really using our language to talk about, you know, the difference between one feeling or another.

And so, this wheel may not cover everything, but it’s pretty comprehensive, and if you think about your own experience, you actually move through these emotions all day long.

Depending on the environment that you’re in, depending on your own thoughts and beliefs, depending on the mental state that you may be in at the time, and maybe even to some extent, depending on if you’re taking medication, or you’re what you’re physically you’re doing, if you’re working out or just sitting on the couch, all of these things affect your emotions and your feelings.

So that being said, Leslie, let’s go ahead and drop down into the area that we’re really interested in looking at today and that’s the area around anxiety and fears, right?

Leslie Baldwin:

Yeah. And I think people sometimes discount children’s feelings, especially children on the Autism spectrum. There’s really no stunt in terms of being stunted in terms of your feelings. Sometimes though, you can get stuck in that kind of cycle of anxiety, where it’s difficult to break out of it.

And, you know, that’s where we are, I think, with the Feelings Wheel. You want to help them identify their feelings, identify why they’re feeling anxious, or worried or scared, or overwhelmed. And then, you know, at least help label it for them, help them label it, and identify it, so that when those feelings come up, and it becomes overwhelming or impeding their ability to function, we can help give some support.

Gary Jesch: 

So, especially with autistic kids that are maybe learning about the world, we may not be able to get them right off the bat to label what is going on inside of them, but we can recognize, right? Or we at least know that something is going on.

And so, when we say something is going on, what Leslie and I are trying to do here is to say ‘okay, specifically, we can identify through the feelings what is most likely.’

Leslie Baldwin:

Right.

Gary Jesch:

Whether it’s a feeling of overwhelm, or maybe you could map it to an expression of anger or worry, and in a lot of cases, we can just trust that what we’re seeing in front of us is this kind of block. You know, an emotional block might show up as stimming or being recalcitrant about working on lessons for the day. There’s a number of different ways that it can show up.

Our idea is that a lot of times if you’re feeling bad, maybe a friend comes along and the friend just kind of distracts you from your own internal mechanisms of the physical response and worry and believing your bad thoughts, that type of thing. And that friend, that buddy, can just be there and doesn’t even have to talk, right? Just to know that there’s somebody in your corner, somebody on your side can help you move away from those extremes towards something that’s a little bit more resourceful.

I would love to see a study of avatars like mine with MRIs or something similar. That way, we can see, scientifically, how the avatars work with emotions and if emotions are objective or subjective rather—that’s really hard to pin down.

I guess, in some ways, you’ll just have to take our word for it and trust us, but also trust your own eyes. And in our work with you, if you decide to come on board, let us give you a demonstration of it. And you’ll see what happens with the interaction between your child and our avatars.

What’s happening is we’re moving from that stuck spot on the Feelings Wheel to a more resourceful spot  where things aren’t blocked, right?

Leslie Baldwin:

Yeah, absolutely. I think you’re spot on.

What Is an Avatar Adventure [0:30:53]

Gary Jesch: 

The fun part of this is to talk a little bit about our program, that’s called “Avatar Adventures.” Leslie and I have come up with this. It’s a way to actually offer this experience to autistic children and their parents and families.

An Avatar Adventure is basically, in a nutshell, a 25 to 30-minute-long, home-based video call session with interactive avatar from my technology. You come into our virtual clinic that we have set up, and everything gets all arranged so that, at a certain time of day, the avatar appears just like in a Zoom session or webcam session and interacts with your child, not just in general, but also with curriculum content. Leslie, you’d be really good at explaining a little bit more of this as we go.

Leslie Baldwin:

I’d be happy to. You want me to explain a little bit now? Or do you want to demonstrate, how are we doing?

Gary Jesch:

I really want to demonstrate—we’re at about 30 past, so we’re in good shape there. Basically, Leslie, what we’re saying is that this is an innovative way to deal with anxiety. It’s engaging, and the kids just really come right in, and their inner child is very welcoming with these avatars. It motivates the children to come back for subsequent sessions.

A typical Avatar Adventure, for most of the kids we’ve been working with, occurs once a week for about 12 weeks to start.

Leslie Baldwin: 

Right, and looking back to the research that’s been done on video modeling, I think we can really credit Don McGee for being a pioneer. His research has really demonstrated the efficacy of the video modeling concept.

I think what we see with many children with autism is that, at times, the human face is a little overwhelming. We can be really expressive, and it’s a little too much. You’ll see them kind of watch you out of the corner of their eye and kind of look away. What I really noticed right away when observing these sessions with the avatars is that they’re so intrigued and so excited. They really are staying, you know, and really wanting to be engaged with the avatar who’s communicating with them.

It’s a really fascinating process to me to watch, but also exciting because you can see how much joy it’s bringing to the child. And then they’re able to do some things, typically, that they may not be under ordinary circumstances in the classroom or somewhere else. Something that’s very difficult for them becomes easier.

Meet Marley—a Live Demo of an Interactive Avatar [0:34:08]

Gary Jesch:

Yeah, so I’m really excited to show this to everybody today. I mean, who could, not love these faces? This is Marley on the left and Kikof the dinosaur on the right. I’m going to just basically show you an animation, the way that I do it the way that it looks in a Avatar Adventure.

First of all, what we’re going to do is turn off the screen share so that it’s full screen up here, and you can switch around so you can see it, and then I’m going to introduce Marley.

Leslie Baldwin:

Okay.

Marley:

Hi, everybody! So great to see you here today! My name is Marley. Let me get a good look at you. Oh, that is Leslie. Hi, Leslie.

Leslie Baldwin:

Hey, Marley, how are you doing today?

Marley:

Doing pretty great, thank you, how about yourself?

Leslie Baldwin: 

I’m doing good. I’m having a good time telling our friends all about the avatars. I know there’s a few of you. But I have to tell you, Marley, you’re one of my favorites—but don’t tell anyone else.

Marley: 

Oh, you are too kind. You’re one of my favorites too actually, you and all these blue fish down here. Well, maybe not all of them, there’s a couple that are a little cranky today.

So, we do all kinds of things. I have this beautiful video that shows the reef where I live, and I can do all sorts of educational stuff with kids. 

As matter of fact, just the other day, I was showing one of my little guys around what we call a ‘turtle cleaning station.’ Would you like to see that?

Leslie Baldwin:

I would. How do they get a clean?

Marley: 

Well, look at this: We talked about this in our sessions with our little guys, and we show them how this turtle is actually swimming along, and these special kinds of fish are eating the algae right off of the back of his shell.

Leslie Baldwin:

Oh, that’s really cool. Do you think it tickles them?

Marley: 

Oh, I don’t think he feels a thing actually. But, you know, I know he appreciates the cleaning because turtles like to be clean. They don’t like to have all these things living on the back of them.

In fact, it was making my friend Fred very sad that his shell wasn’t that clean. It’s just one of those bad things for turtles. I was kind of surprised, at all of that, actually.

Leslie Baldwin:

So is Fred your favorite turtle? Or do you like all of them?

Marley:

Well, actually, don’t tell everybody that Fred is my favorite because look at these other guys. This is Fred’s friend. He’s waiting in line for crying out loud.

Leslie Baldwin:

It’s hard to wait sometimes. Isn’t it Marley?

Marley:

Well, it’s a part of life, you know. The thing is we can teach kids all about the undersea world. Everything from starfish to seabirds is my specialty here at Avatar Adventures, and the ocean is full of all good stories and resources. And you’ll have to meet my buddy Kikof; he is a specialist in the jungle birds and stuff like that. All kinds of things in fact. We’ll show you some of our other avatars. What do you think you’re pretty cool, huh?

Leslie Baldwin:

I think that is cool. And Marley, I know, I can see you and talk to you. Can you see me?

Marley:

I can. I can see you perfectly. Let’s see you’re holding how many fingers up? Hold your hand up. I’ll tell you. . . You’re holding three fingers! See how easy that is? That’s just the way it works with our video calls. I can see you and you can see and hear me perfectly.

Leslie Baldwin: 

Oh, that’s really cool. And you know what, Marley? I thought you’re probably pretty good at playing games.

Marley:

Yeah, I can play games. All sorts of ways that we can engage kids. All you got to do is use your creativity a little bit, right?

Leslie Baldwin:

That’s right. And I have a feeling that you probably made some pretty good friends with some of these children, as you’ve gone along, because I think you’re a good cheerleader for them.

Marley:

Oh, yeah. What’s really been fun lately is that we’ve been working at the University of Nevada, Reno. They have an Autism clinic there, and we’re helping young people that are graduate students learn how to interact with our avatars and the kids. So that we can introduce them to a way of taking the kid’s focus and worries off of the session by bringing fun cartoon characters, like me, right in to help.

Leslie Baldwin: 

Wow, cool.

Marley:

I know.

Leslie Baldwin: 

It’s pretty cool; I bet the grad students love it too.

Marley:

Oh, yeah. They’re the creative ones, too. They helped put together the various graphics for their kids’ programs for the day, so it works great for everybody.

Leslie Baldwin: 

That’s pretty cool. I appreciate you, sharing all of that and coming to meet us today. I know your schedule is very busy Marley.

Marley:

Oh, I know. I’ve got to go real quick here. So, thanks so much. And we’ll see you again soon. I hope—oh, whale shark! Whoa!

Leslie Baldwin:

Bye, Marley.

Marley:

Bye!

Gary Jesch:

Oh, that was just fun. Every time I do that, Leslie, it is so great. You know a lot of people are going, ‘Well Gary, how do you control the avatars like that?’ And so, when I speak, this microphone picks up my voice and it gives the character that lip sync automatically. And then I move them around on the screen and run these emotions here off of this digital tablet, so these are like virtual sliders across the top. So, I can do like a percentage of that emotional look, that facial expression.

And then here, I move them around with various controls. And every avatar has a different set of controls, so it’s pretty amazing. Nowadays in my field, you’ve got these guys dressing up in full body suits with balls poking off of it and a dozen cameras all around, so our technology is really the only one that allows us to control interactive avatars, with something as simple as a digital tablet.

And I’ve even actually trained kids. I’ll even train kids how to control these avatars. So, that’s not part of the Avatar Adventures quite yet, but down the road…

Leslie Baldwin:

Pretty amazing.

Gary Jesch: 

We’re working on software that will be able to give to people right there to use in their own homes with their own kids so totally stoked about that.

Leslie Baldwin:

Very fun, very fun.

Being an Avatar Pilot [0:41:46]

Gary Jesch:

Let’s hop back to our slideshow, then what do you think and wrap things up here. Here we go. So, we have our slides backup.

Leslie Baldwin:

Yay.

Gary Jesch:

Hey, it works hey; I always love that when that happens. So yeah, you know, we’ve kind of covered this, what we can say is that, as well, I called myself an Avatar Pilot, and I’ve trained others that are working as Avatar Pilots now.

They go through a six-month long training period to become, you know, ready to go at this. And during that time, we teach them all about the empathy and respect that we have for all children, autistic or not. But mainly, you know, our clients to help them and to reveal, you know, their potential. That type of thing is all super important.

And these are real cartoons, I guess, ‘real cartoons,’ right? But it’s not software that you can just go out and buy and put on an iPad somewhere. What we’re really proud of here is that it’s a unique, customized experience, a conversation that’s real and responding in real time to where your child is at right there on the call.

So, sometimes we see kids that are a little slower to warm up. So, we’re familiar with that, or sometimes the Avatar Pilot will have to talk a little quieter just to kind of have a calming presence around the child, or I’ll pick an avatar that’s maybe more like the kind of character that the child is into—girls’ interests versus boys’ for example. So, we can mix that up as well. And we always come prepared, ready to go, and on time. So, there you go.

What we relate to, is puppetry and puppet shows that I can remember back when I was just a young person, I would like hide behind the couch, you know, and put a sock or eventually I designed a puppet with, you know, eyes in that and I, ‘Hey, how are you doing there?’ You know, and, and I found that people love that and it was entertaining to them. And so, I guess maybe that was the precursor of my days as the Avatar Pilot.

But, you know, you can do some research. I went to the Jim Henson Foundation’s website, and they actually train people who want to learn how to do puppetry. And of course, Henson is behind Sesame Street, puppets that we all grew up with, right, Leslie?

Leslie Baldwin:

Absolutely I mean, who doesn’t love Miss Piggy and Kermit? And then you move on from the Muppets on to Sesame Street and think of all the wonderful lessons that we’ve learned through Sesame Street, the Muppets, and even through Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

The joy you might have had as a child or having your child involved with Danny Lee shows you the puppets can interact in a way with kids that, as adults, can be difficult. Children just kind of open up and are more open to learning, lowering their anxiety. It really is an interesting process to see.

Here’s one of the things I wanted to say to parents out there and therapists: We’re not saying that this should replace other therapies or whatever they’re doing, but this is certainly something for your parent or therapist toolbox, in addition to what you’re doing, that can be a helpful tool and really make a difference, especially when you’re looking at anxiety, emotional and physical regulation, so that they are able to stay with you and learn.

I think, Gary, you’ve had some experiences where you’ve worked on some goals and sessions where the child has really done well on the session, and then be able to transfer that knowledge and experience and confidence into other situations. Is that correct?

Gary Jesch:

Yeah, absolutely we’re going to get into that more in part two of our next webinar coming up, specific cases that we worked on that are just amazing stories, Leslie.

I think that the interesting thing to me is that when you when you talk about Henson or Mr. Rogers and that type of thing, you’re seeing performers connect with kids through the puppets in a way that seems to be a little easier than therapists connecting with kids.

Leslie Baldwin:

Right. Right.

Learning Through Play [0:47:00] 

Gary Jesch:

What we’re trying to do here, in some fashion, is say, ‘you can bring your own therapist.’ If you’re a mom or dad, and you have a child, you’re welcome to bring your own therapist. But, you know, moms sitting alongside their kids, working with these avatars is, every bit as powerful in a lot of ways as some of the therapies that are out there now.

Leslie Baldwin: 

Absolutely.

Gary Jesch:

So, we don’t claim to be therapists, Leslie. We bring a wellness offer to the table. It’s not paid for by insurance because insurance maybe doesn’t understand cartoons. But we can price that out, so folks can get into it.

We have a great collection of avatars. There’s Cyber Santa who goes and meets with kids in cyberspace, and some more fish. There’s other fish characters: Delta and Genus and Marley’s counterpart Morphie—for the girls. Malachi, the teenager in the red hoodie there. We’re using him in simulations. And I’ll tell you a little bit more about those simulations at our next webinar coming up in June.

The dancing babies are always interesting. Everybody loves a dancing baby, and our babies actually can talk and interact and dance with each other.

Leslie Baldwin:

Oh, boy.

Gary Jesch:

Yeah, and interact with our clients all at the same time. So, this is kind of what it looks like on the screen when we have an Avatar Adventure.

It’s a personalized video call: With me, the Avatar Pilot, as Marley on one side and our client on the other. This is Braedon. We did, I think, 20 weeks with Braedon the summer before the pandemic, and at the end of it, his Avatar Adventures, we actually did a video presentation that took him all through New York City because he had told his mom how interested he was in New York City.

Leslie Baldwin: 

Oh, cool.

Gary Jesch:

So, I built the video that took him all the way in Times Square and the boroughs of New York City and everything. It was totally fun. And it was a great experience for all of us.

I mean, you’ve seen this. If anything, what would you say is going on here? It’s all about play, right?

Leslie Baldwin:

Yeah. And, you know, play is an extremely powerful tool for children. It’s the primary modality. How children learn when they’re young is through play.

And for me, you know, this is a play but learning. There’s no way you can walk away from this without having to learn something, and for the child to learn something. There just is something kind of magical about it when you see these children interacting.

I think the beautiful thing about this too is that you really do a great job of working with each family and any therapists or teachers involved, individualizing these sessions to help them work on goals that they’ve been working on. But in a way, that’s fun. It’s not overwhelming or intimidating.

And, you know, all the things that can happen that can derail a child from staying in the moment with you. It’s really awesome to experience.

Embarking on an Avatar Adventure [0:51:00]

Gary Jesch:

So, let’s take just a real quick look, because it’s about 10 till we need to wrap up and get to some questions here.

I’ll just cover this really quickly. It’s a four-step entry into our virtual clinic, so here’s how you can get this set up: You contact us, and we’ll have this introductory meeting where we talk about who your child is? What the goals are? And we’ll begin the development of this action plan that will move us forward.

We’ll give you a free demo of an Avatar Adventure with your child, to see if there’s any kind of issues, technically, getting things squared away for your computer and for your child so that everybody can see and hear everybody. We’ll make sure that all works and then we’ll schedule Avatar Adventures.

Your first session is on the house with us. And you’ll be able to pick your own day and time, kind of within my own working schedule, of course, but we’ll work that out.

And then finally, we’ll begin your Avatar Adventure. You’ll actually log in to the ‘portal for moms,’ we call it, we thought of other things—’client portal’ and all that. But we really want to connect with you. So, we just call it ‘portal for moms,’ and you come into your portal, you use your password, and open it up. And that’s your access. Where you click on to join the meeting, that will have an avatar waiting there for you.

Pretty simple, really, and not very expensive. I’m trying to keep the prices down to something that people can afford. My goal is to get clients to get feedback from them so that we can refine how we’re working with our clients and their families and get some more ideas about where to go next with this business to serve more people. That’s what the story is there. Leslie, invirtua.com, right?

Leslie Baldwin:

Yeah, invirtua.com. You can go to the website. It’s very easy to get to. There’s a lot of information on it about the Avatar Adventures. But also, if you’re interested in more of the background about what we’re talking about in terms of research, and also videos of some of the sessions that Gary’s gotten permission from families to share online. It really is worth your time to go on and take a look and see if you think this might be something your child would benefit from.

Discussion with Tom Buggey [0:53:45] 

Gary Jesch:

Excellent! So, we’re just going to manage to take a couple of quick questions here. But before we take off too much, you know, we have Tom Buggey on the line. And I think, Tom, if you can go ahead and unmute your microphone. I’d like to say hi, and welcome you to our webinar and asked you to give us a little of your words of wisdom about where you think we’re able to help kids out, are able to do that? So, there you go. I’ve unmuted your mic and I can hear you Tom, welcome. How are you?

Tom Buggey:

Hi Gary, and nice to meet you Leslie.

Leslie Baldwin:

Nice to meet you too, I’m a big fan of your work.

Tom Buggey:

Oh, thank you. Yeah, this was fun, Gary. I enjoyed it. And I can see the benefit of it. I had a few light bulb moments during the presentation.

Gary Jesch:

Oh, great. Let’s hear about it.

Tom Buggey:

Well, where Leslie has anxiety on that tree. I think for a lot of kids, that equates to risk-taking.

Leslie Baldwin:

Yeah.

Tom Buggey:

And I think that’s where video modeling comes in. It can help a child bridge the risk-taking by allowing them to experience what might be happening next. And you can do that through Invirtua, you can talk them through it, or I guess now you may actually be able to show them the other side of that risk.

Gary Jesch:

Oh, yeah…

Tom Buggey:

In my last study, we were looking at children with physical disabilities, who were very reluctant to walk because they tend to fall down. And these two children only took two steps. That’s all they could manage. So, we had a camcorder, and we turned the viewfinder around, so the children could see themselves in the viewfinder. And I had a graduate assistant just walk backward.

And they were three year olds, they had physical disabilities, but they followed my graduate assistant as she walked, frog-walked backwards with the camera, because the kids now had the motivation of seeing themselves and moving forward, so we were able to bridge that risk-taking. I think all children have problems with risk-taking.

I think you have a technology, that not will not only work with children with Autism, but will work with all kinds of children.

Gary Jesch:

Yeah. You said you had a couple of lightbulb moments. Was there another one, Tom?

Tom Buggey:

Yeah, there was, and it had to do with anxiety and the Feelings Wheel. And I was thinking many adults have had anxiety attacks, brief moments where they felt completely overwhelmed and there was no trigger. And that feeling would come in and move out eventually.

I was thinking about children with Autism, with anxiety, and possibly that anxiety attack that we have felt, and this may give us some insight into how they feel this comes and stays with many of them. And this would explain the rocking behavior among autistics. I mean, that’s exactly what I would do if I had a major long-term anxiety attack.

I sort of put myself in the shoes of autistic children and I got that insight. So, I was very pleased with that. You would need more intense therapy rather than risk-taking where you would just have to bridge the gap with severe anxiety. You would have to have a longer-term plan and treatment.

Gary Jesch:

Yeah, for sure and, you know, that’s kind of where the avatar comes in. The avatar is such a contrast, and a distraction to that stuck spot that you’re talking about, being stuck in an overwhelming anxiety attack. The avatar is just like such the opposite of that: cheerful and patient and empathetic and all those qualities that just tend to pull anybody out of that. The avatar is the opposite of that self-feeding cycle of worry and overwhelm that they may be going through at the time, right?

Tom Buggey:

Yes, and Leslie’s comment about reaction. The reactions to human faces that many autistic kids have. You know, they do not seem to show that with video, and your avatars are so cute.

They will illuminate that aspect of reluctance to be taught or to listen and so and so you have a lot of things going for you.

Gary Jesch:

Hey, great, Tom. Thank you so much for weighing in on this, and I really appreciate hearing from you. This is, as we said earlier, being recorded so that others will be able to check this out as we go forward with our programs, and when we come back for part two, Leslie is going to speak a lot more about sensory processing.

And we’re going to show a couple more avatars in our next program, and hopefully Tom will get a chance to make his observations at the end of part two.

So, ladies and gentlemen, we sure appreciate it. Leslie, would you like to say any final words here before we go?

Leslie Baldwin:

I just want to say thank you for having me as a guest today. I’m so excited to share information about this technology and the availability, and I think what Tom said was right on target. You can never underestimate the power of an internal motivator with a child.

And to me, what I observed, having worked with children for a long time, is seeing the avatars are so enticing. And that the kids overcome, as Tom was saying, that anxiety to really want to take that risk and go ahead and start interacting. You see that anxiety level lower, so that they are more readily available to work on whatever the goals of the session are. It’s powerful.

Gary Jesch:

Exactly. And also, they get their own video modeling, because in these video calls, they see themselves.

Leslie Baldwin:

Yes.

Gary Jesch:

Maybe smaller down in the corner of the screen, but they’re becoming accustomed to watching themselves and their facial expressions, as well as the avatar’s facial expressions that we have.

Leslie Baldwin:

All which I think is extremely helpful for most of the children I’ve worked with.

Gary Jesch:

Great well, Tom, thank you. Leslie, thank you so much. All of our audience today, we surely appreciate having you with us, and we look forward to when we come back. So, take care and have a great weekend. Thank you very much.

Leslie Baldwin: 

Bye, bye thanks.

Andrew Ciampi is an content writer based in the state of Washington. His areas of interest include the autism spectrum, emerging technologies (practical or recreational), and the transportation/trucking sector. You can find his professional writings here on Invirtua and at Relaymile.com.

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