MU professor creates online program to enhance social skills among children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder

Former classroom curriculum has been transformed into an online virtual world where peers interact as avatars.
iSocial curriculum is being developed into a virtual world where children, parents and teachers will be able to interact using personal avatars. courtesy of MU News Bureau

MU researchers have recently introduced an online program called iSocial that targets children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Individuals with this disorder have a difficult time cooperating and socializing with others their own age.

The purpose of iSocial is to give children with autism new opportunities to socialize with peers in a virtual world while learning to enhance already existing social skills as well as learn new ones through an online curriculum.

“The virtual world provides an opportunity for youth to get together, interact and practice their skills in enjoyable and engaging ways,” Janine Stichter, professor of special education and innovator of the new curriculum, said.

Stichter describes the new curriculum as “current and innovative.” Today, people of all ages, especially youth, are contanstanly engaging online.

“Currently we are updating the model since technology evolves so fast. It’s exciting to see what we can create and how easy and rich we can make the interface,” Stichter said.

In order to develop iSocial, the pre-existing program called the Social Competence Intervention (SCI) Suite that was available as a classroom course had to be translated into an online platform.

Jim Laffey, professor emeritus in the College of Education, led the team that originally transformed the traditional curriculum into a virtual world to make it more accessible to kids at a distance. Stichter, her team and Laffey worked to make sure that the preliminary program’s educational content remained just as effective online.

The effectiveness came through trial and error. Laffey recounts an instance when one of the initial prototypes was built and then tested.

“As soon as the kids entered the world they started running around exploring all the aspects of their new world,” Laffey said. “The online teacher was unable to round them up and conduct her lesson. That taught us that we needed to build in some structures like pods (that stimulated school desks) so that for some activities the kids could be asked to stand on the pods if needed.”

This was just one of the corrections made to iSocial. In addition to the standard lessons, iSocial encompasses a variety of activities and environments that required invention and engaging ideas that would keep children interested.

In addition to maintaining a current platform, Stichter also wanted to expand the program to as many families as possible. Stichter and her team were given a start up grant from the Thompson center in 2007. Following the start-up grant, the team received their first federal grant for the larger online translation in 2008.

As a result of these grants, families residing in locations or attending schools that do not offer or do not have the funding for a program such as iSocial now have much more access to the online version.

“There are many areas in the world and right next door that do not have the funding or human resources to use some of the evidenced based programming that exists. We wanted to bridge that divide,” Stichter said.

It is often difficult for children diagnosed with autism to be provided with the opportunities during the day to learn and engage in traditional classroom and home settings due to lack of funding or accessibility to the original program. iSocial provides a platform where these children can create their own avatars and exist in a virtual world while learning new social skills and enhancing ones they already possess.

Stichter said that the social skills they acquire are “critical for the maintenance of friendships and post secondary activities like getting and keeping a job.”

iSocial is not just geared toward building upon pre-existing sociability at a young age but also building communication and relational skills into adulthood that will help with careers and friendships in the future.

“The activities and structured lessons in iSocial provide a scaffolded approach to enhance existing skills while layering on new, more advanced skills that will be critical for the maintenance of friendships and post secondary activities like getting and keeping a job,” Stichter said.

Evidence-based strategies are a vital aspect to the development of iSocial. The original purpose of these strategies, backed with actual experiences, was to create an entire curriculum that was supported by effective experiences.

The next step was to integrate the strategies and effectiveness back into the initial settings such as personal interactions and schools.

“We could then use [the curriculum and activities] to build the virtual world and not lose any of the important learning and development for the youth,” Stichter said.

In one lesson simulation, the goal was to persuade the children into sharing and communicating ideas as well as listening to one another. In order to create an environment where this type of interaction is welcomed, a restaurant was invented.

“Kids had to make decisions about what type of restaurant, what decor, what menu, etc…and then see the restaurant take shape in front of them,” Laffey said.

Currently iSocial is available for people starting at age 8 into young adulthood, so the traditional SCI Suite program is the only option to current MU students. Stichter says that this age group can expect to be included in the roll out in the future, and all that is left to be done is translate the young adult traditional curriculum into the online version.

Edited by Morgan Smith |

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