This year, a professor at Brigham Young University published a study in the Elsevier Journal called “Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” It details how they used our 3D Digital Puppeteer software to examine avatar-based social skills intervention in a clinical setting. This small study revealed a similar conclusion made by many other researchers in Europe and the US. Participants make consistent gains when assisted by computer-generated interactive avatars.

The study began in 2016 and was made available online in December 2019. The findings support the use of technology-aided interventions and instruction with interactive avatars. Five children with varying severity of autism were studied. Grad students were the Digital Puppeteer (TM) avatar-pilots for the research.

Here’s what the study’s authors had to say:

BYU education researchers have found that autistic children love learning with the help of live animated characters. In fact, the BYU study found that children learned more by talking to an animated fish avatar, named Marla (running on the Digital Puppeteer platform, than they learned by talking to another person.

BYU student Bruna Goncalves, who graduates from BYU this week, has been a fundamental part of the autism research project. Goncalves was inspired to pursue special education out of love for her older sister, Barbara, who has cerebral palsy.

Goncalves, a BYU student in special education, found her passion for behavioral research through the love she has for her best friend and older sister, Barbara. When Goncalves was just two years old, the family immigrated to the United States from São Paulo, Brazil. The family sacrificed their business and all they had to seek better treatment options for Barbara’s severe cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the ability to move and maintain balance and posture.

Ryan Kellems, assistant professor in counseling psychology and special education, said Goncalves’ unique perspective enriched his research team. “We felt a sense of responsibility for Barbara throughout childhood and that, mixed with growing up in a Brazilian culture at home, made fitting in a challenge for us.” Goncalves said. “But we didn’t mind it because Barbara got the care she needed.”

As an undergraduate researcher studying under Kellems, Goncalves and her colleagues used live animation to teach behavioral skills to autistic children. The “live” part of the animation includes software that moves the animated avatar as researchers have real-time conversations and lessons with participants.

Participants would sit in front of a screen with the live-animated fish, Marla, while researchers controlled Marla with the Digital Puppeteer (TM) software in a separate room in which they could view the participants through a two-way mirror and respond by speaking into a microphone.

The researchers’ goal was to teach children how to start a conversation, since it doesn’t always come naturally to autistic children. At the beginning, participants would practice the five steps of how to start a conversation with Marla. The five steps are to look at the person and smile, stand about an arm’s length away, ask a question, use a nice voice and wait for a response. Marla would teach them a lesson in how to start a conversation with one of the researchers. Researchers eventually brought in same-aged peers and relatives to solidify the concepts.

The study’s children not only had high levels of engagement with Marla, but they also learned how to start a conversation with the people around them. Parents responded favorably to surveys, indicating that the live animation teaching method made a difference in their and their children’s lives. Goncalves said she saw one of the study’s participants at her practicum and was delighted to see him starting conversations with the children around him.

“It was incredible to see someone using what they’d learned. I saw him generalize skills and I’ll always remember that.” Goncalves said. Kellems said Goncalves wasn’t done with the research when the project was completed. “Not only did she help design and conduct the research, but she also co-presented the findings with me at two different national conferences – a truly remarkable feat for an undergrad.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s in special education, Goncalves will begin graduate studies in special education at BYU. She hopes to bring the knowledge and skills she has gained in college to create special education programs in Brazil.

For more detailed information, you can download a copy of the report from our website, using the link below:

“Effectiveness of avatar-delivered instruction on social initiations by children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”

Authors include: Cade T. Charlton*, Ryan O. Kellems, Brooke Black, Heidi C. Bussey, Rachel Ferguson, Bruna Goncalves, Mikaela Jensen, Sara Vallejo Department of Counseling Psychology & Special Education, 340-N MCKB, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602, United States

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