Studies Support Effectiveness of Avatars

Topic has received attention worldwide for past 10 years
Research at BYU

There has been a prevailing notion that autistic children tend to be visual learners (Erdodi, Lajiness-O’Neill, & Schmitt, 2013), and more studies show the effectiveness of avatars, computer-generated cartoon characters designed to aid visual learners.

What is known is that when the human is not present, but represented on a screen, attention is heightened and learning results improved (e.g. Bellini & Akulian 2007; Buggey & Ogle, 2012; Charlop-Christy, Le, &. Freeman, 2000; Hine & Wolery, 2006).  There seem to be some unique outcomes achieved through video-based modeling, especially with autistic children. Multiple studies have discovered the effectiveness of avatars in learning sessions; results appear quickly, are maintained, and generalize to other behaviors and situations. Effect sizes tend to be quite large.

Research on animated characters and avatars is relatively new, however a sample is presented here, found through searches in PsychInfo and Medline for terms such as avatar and animation along with autism. Overall, the results obtained through animated or avatar-based interventions are comparable to other forms of video modeling.

The only exception to this was a study carried out by Carter, Williams, Hodgins, & Lehman (2014) in which they found that children were more responsive to a therapist than an adult-controlled avatar, or cartoon characters presented at a theme park. The avatar and human condition occurred at a Disney theme park with a very large screen and following an introduction by a human host, whose last instruction was to point out the emergency exits.

Studies using more conventional instructional practices routinely showed better results across a range of behaviors. Although results are very encouraging, there is room for further research.

Researchers at BYU looked specifically at Invirtua’s technology in their research study published in 2019. Click here for more information.

Other published research:

  • Southampton
    • Parsons & Cobb – 2011 – University of Southampton, UK
    • State-of-the-art of virtual reality technologies for children on the autism spectrum
    • European Journal of Special Needs Education, 26:3, 355-366, DOI: 0.1080/08856257.2011.593831
    • How VR for autistic children has been explored over the past 10 years and state-of-the-art
    • stateofartvirt.pdf
  • Axe
    • Axe and Evans – 2012 – Simmons College, Boston
    • Using video modeling to teach children with PDD-NOS to respond to facial expressions
    • Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 6 (2012) 1176-1185
    • Video modeling helps autistic children learn to respond to facial expressions
    • Axe & Evans 2012.pdf (Document not available here due to copyright restrictions)
  • “Transporters”
    • Golan, Ashwin, Granader, McClintock, Day, Leggett, Baron-Cohen – 2010 -Cambridge University
    • Enhancing Emotion Recognition in Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions: An Intervention Using Animated Vehicles with Real Emotional Faces
    • Journal of Autism & Developmental  Disorders (2010) 40:269-279
    • Emotion comprehension enhanced in children 4-7 with recorded animation, using human faces on animated trains
    • animatvehicles.pdf
  • CBI – Austin
    • Ramdoss, Machalicek, Rispoli, Mulloy, Land and O’Reilly – 2012 – University of Texas Austin
    • Computer-based interventions to improve social and emotional skills in individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review
    • Developmental NeuroRehabilitation, April 2012; 15(2): 119-135
    • Use of computer-based intervention is promising practice, as effective as face-to-face
    • comp-basedintervreview.pdf
  • Newcastle
    • Maskey, Lowry, Rodgers, McConachie, Parr – 2014 – University of Newcastle, UK
    • Reducing Specific Phobia/Fear in Young People with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) through a Virtual Reality Environment Intervention
    • PLOS One – DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0100374
    • Tackling anxiety and phobias using VR goggles (Third Eye) is an effective treatment for some on the spectrum
    • reducingfear.pdf
  • BrainHealth
    • Kandalaft, Didehbani, Krawczyk, Allen and Chapman – 2012 – University of Texas Dallas
    • Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training for Young Adults with High-Functioning Autism
    • Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 10.1007/s10803-012-1544-6
    • Feasibility of using VR platform Second Life as a tool for improving social skills, cognition and functioning in autism
    • VRsocialcognition.pdf
  • Vanderbilt
    • Bekele, Crittendon, Zheng, Swanson, Weitlauf, Warren and Sarkar – 2014 -Vanderbilt University, Nashville TN
    • Assessing the Utility of a Virtual Environment for Enhancing Facial Affect Recognition in Adolescents with Autism
    • J Autism Dev Disord (2014) 44:1641-1650, DOI 10.1007/s10803-014-2035-8
    • Facial recognition and emotion processing using avatars, VR and eye-tracking by teenagers with ASD
    • facialrec.pdf
  • Leeds
    • Moore, Cheng, McGrath and Powell – 2005 – Leeds Metropolitan Univ.
    • Collaborative Virtual Environment Technology for People With Autism
    • Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter 2005
    • Autistic children will be able to use emotional avatars
    • collabvirtenvirons.pdf
  • Georgescu
    • Georgescu, Kuzmanovic, Roth, Bente and Vogely – 2014 – Cologne, Germany
    • The use of virtual characters to assess and train non-verbal communication in high-functioning autism
    • Frontiers in Human NeuroScience; October 2014, Vol. 8, Article 807
    • Virtual characters overcome methodical challenges in non-verbal behavior research and assessment
    • autismvirtuallanguage2014.pdf
  • “Baldi”
    • Bosseler and Massaro – 2003 – University of California, Santa Cruz
    • Development and Evaluation of a Computer-Animated Tutor for Vocabulary and Language Learning in Children with Autism
    • Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 33, No. 6, Dec. 2003
    • Computer-animated tutor teaches vocabulary, grammar within automated program
    • animattutor.pdf
  • Aristotle U
    • Konstantinidis, Luneski, Nikolaidou, Hitoglou-Antoniadou, Bamidis – 2009 -Aristotle University, Greece
    • Using Affective Avatars and Rich Multimedia Content for Education of Children with Autism
    • Petra’09, June 9-13, 2009, Corfu, Greece. ACM ISBN 978-1-60558-409-6
    • Examines affective technologies with the engagement of a speaking avatar and a prototype system
    • affectiveavatar.pdf
  • FaceSay
    • Hopkins, Gower, Perez, Smith, Amthor, Wimsalt, Biasini – 2011 – U of Alabama Birmingham
    • Avatar Assistant: improving social skills in students with an ASD through a computer-based intervention
    • J Autism Dev Disord (2011) 41:1543-1555, DOI 10.1007/s10803-011-1179-z
    • Avatar assistants help improve social skills, facial recognition, emotion recognition in those with HFA and LFA
    • hopkinsfulltext.pdf
  • SARA – Animated Faces
    • Arellano, Helzle, Schaler, Rauh – German Research Foundation
    • Animated Faces, Abstractions and Autism
    • T. Bickmore et al. (Eds.): IVA 2014, LNAI 8637, pp. 22–25, 2014. Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014
    • Platform for real-time facial animation and application in autism research – SARA (Stylized Animations for Research on Autism), Frapper
    • animatedfaces.pdf
  • Carter
    • Carter, Williams, Hodgins, Lehman – 2014 – Carnegie-Mellon, PA
    • Are Children with Autism More Responsive to Animated Characters? A Study of Interactions with Humans and Human-Controlled Avatars
    • Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2014) 44:2475-2485
    • 12 autistic children interacted with human therapist, interactive avatar in theme park and cartoon characters
    • avatarcarter2014.pdf

*Out of deference to the autistic community, we now prioritize the use of identity first language (e.g., autistic individual) rather than person first language (e.g., person with autism). Some research materials have person first language, as at the time of publication, that practice was regarded as respectful.



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