An avatar speech training story from the perspective of Enid Webb, Silver Linings Education Services, whose leadership and talents as a tutor and therapist have helped many children in the northern Nevada area.
“I was very excited when I was introduced to the Invirtua technology, and its cast of interactive virtual characters. This program possesses numerous possibilities for working with students with ASD. This is my story of one such session:”
From a clinical standpoint, I have provided speech-language therapy services for individuals with ASD and I always address the following three areas, Social Skills, Communication and Emotional Regulation.
IF YOU’VE SEEN ONE PERSON WITH AUTISM
I have been working with individuals on the autism spectrum for the past 17 years and I have discovered, as the quote says, “If you have seen one person with autism, then you have seen one person with autism.”
There are some similarities among individuals with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders), but there are far more differences. One similarity I have found among individuals with ASD is their fascination with animation and animated characters.
OBVIOUS AFFINITY FOR ANIMATION AND CARTOONS
Many children will memorize and recite dialogues from animated movies before they are able to engage in dialogue using the necessary communication skills with people in a natural environment. (See “Life, Animated,” a book about parenting and autism by Ron Suskind).
Working with Gary Jesch, founder and animation pioneer at Invirtua, I used the live animation technology in my sessions with a student diagnosed with autism. He loves animation and is very interested in learning more about the process of making characters move on a screen.
LIVE ANIMATION OFFERS ENORMOUS POSSIBILITIES
Many individuals with ASD who come to me have very active, very creative imaginations. We want to incorporate that imagination in an environment that is engaging enough to keep their attention so they can be available for learning new things.
Emily Rubin said it best when she said, “You have to make your party more fun than theirs.”
ADDRESSES CHALLENGES OF ATTENTION-SPAN AND READING SKILLS WITH AVATAR SPEECH TRAINING
Considering this particular child with autism, it has often been difficult to motivate him during his speech and reading sessions, especially with challenging tasks. Even though he is about eleven years old, he appears to read only at a first-grade (seven-year-old) level.
My student entered the office and the first thing he asked was, “did I have Legos?” We had discussed getting a set of Legos for the classroom during his previous session. When I told him that I had not gotten the Legos yet, he appeared to be upset and he asked me a few more times about the Legos.
MAGIC OF LIVE ANIMATION CAPTIVATES AND HOLDS US
I redirected his attention to the computer screen and told him that we were going to have fun with animated characters today. This is when the magic started. My student was in the office with me, in front of a medium-sized video screen. Gary was observing us via a small hidden video camera and microphone, connected to some equipment in the adjacent room.
Gary had set up his Digital Puppeteer live animation system in that room, and was at the controls. He began to communicate with my student via an animated cartoon character on the video screen.
Gary had chosen a cartoon avatar that looked like a young man with glasses. The character introduced itself as “Scotch” in a funny voice and waved his arms, rolled his eyes and reached out for a fist bump with my student.
Both my student and I were captivated by this first-time-ever experience: speaking with a cartoon character on a screen and having it speak back to us.
AVATAR COMES ALIVE AND ENGAGES STUDENT PERSONALLY
From our perspective, “Scotch” (and Gary) could see and hear everything we were doing, and was speaking with my student in a soft easy voice, full of curiosity about my student and the Lego toys he was playing with in front of the screen. Watching the cartoon character come alive was amazing.
My student became very engaged. Not only was he watching the character on the screen intently, but he began to answer “Scotch’s” questions about reading, writing and wrote words on a paper which he could show “Scotch.”
The student also asked me many questions about how the avatar was communicating with him, during his avatar speech training experience.
STUDENT TAKES OVER AS PUPPETEER QUICKLY
We were able to get my student through the “work” portion of the session so quickly that we decided to let him try controlling the actions and emotions of an avatar himself.
The student took a few minutes to look over the many characters that Gary showed him, and then selected “Ben,” an avatar who resembles a realistic-looking young boy about my student’s age.
For about 20 minutes, the student learned to move “Ben” around on the screen and discovered the animations that were available, such as making emotive facial expressions and getting him to sit down to a table and eat.
CHILD LEARNS NEW COMMUNICATION SKILLS IN MINUTES
The student was fascinated and quickly learned from Gary how to give his mother and me a “show” where he became the voice of “Ben” himself. My student later told me that he liked Ben and it was fun to make him move. It seemed like he picked up the basics of the animation and the avatar speech training very quickly.
My student gave the character life, expression and used a voice he created to interact with us. He changed the facial expressions on the avatar, choosing how Ben appeared to feel.
After learning and practicing controlling these animated characters in computer-generated worlds, students may be more likely to generalize some new skills with people in their own worlds.
AVATARS ARE NON-THREATENING AND ENGAGING
Numerous communication skills can be taught with the help of the avatars. I observed this with my student as he easily engaged in a conversation and performed tasks while training with the avatar. The avatar appears to be novel, engaging, and non-threatening, so it is a perfect tool for introducing and practicing even the most difficult skills.
When students are actively engaged, as they most likely will be with the many different avatars available, it is easier for them to emotionally regulate, compared to sessions where they are bored from answering the same questions over and over again.
I have only touched the surface in using this technology to motivate, teach, and inspire my students in all those areas that matter including social skills, speech development, imagination, emotional engagement as well as the three R’s.
AVATARS TEACH FACIAL EXPRESSIONS, EMOTIONS AND EYE CONTACT
Social skills can be taught with the avatars, similar to the concept of video modeling. The avatars have realistic, exaggerated facial expressions, so emotions can be displayed and discussed. The person who controls the avatar can choose any facial expressions and can also move the eyes around, making and breaking eye contact.
Often ASD individuals do not consistently engage in eye contact, so they miss out on the various and subtle changes in facial expressions with the people in their environment. With the avatars, because they are animated characters, the individuals are more likely to focus on their faces and attend to the changes in their expressions.
NO OTHER TOOLS QUITE LIKE LIVE ANIMATION
I can’t think of any other “tools” in my training in ABA and SLP that offer support, during avatar speech training, in the same areas as Invirtua’s live animation system, even video modeling. It’s never boring and can be enhanced when I use my phone or camera to take videos of my student interacting with the avatar, so he can take them home and watch them when he wants.
He can see his own facial expressions and eye contact with the character on the screen, and then he can watch the “shows” he creates with his own avatar, interacting with me and members of his family.
We all look forward to a brighter future for this student and many others, and appreciate the efforts of Invirtua in bringing live animated avatars to our aid.