Cart
Search
Menu

Social Thinking Articles

Human Time or Screen Time? Which helps our children with ASD learn communication skills?

Michelle Garcia Winner

Human Time or Screen Time 260

Over the years many people have asked us about computer games that are good for teaching social skills. Even today, I’m still not sure how to answer this question. Like many parents and other professionals in my field, I’m aware that our students’ attention is much more captivated by the high-interest designs and images that appear on a screen (after all, they’re designed to capture attention). But at the same time I keep wondering: these are kids with social communication and social interaction challenges. It just seems a reach to offer them learning options that are one step removed from the very social situations they struggle within. Do we do our students justice when we give them – even encourage them - to relate to virtual images or characters in the supposedly same manner and mode that they relate to humans in face-to-face interaction? Or is there meaningful real-world place for teaching social interaction via the screen? 


Let’s start with a 2014 journal article I read that addressed some of these issues directly; it’s a good place to consider some aspects of the discussion: 


“Are Children with Autism More Responsive to Animated Characters? A Study of Interactions with Humans and Human Controlled Avatars” by Carter, Williams, Hodgins & Lehman.  

While the research was limited in sample size (12 children with autism ages 4-8 who had emerging to solid language skills), their data results are intriguing and may continue to encourage us to explore ways in which we develop treatment options and delivery pathways for our children and their families. 


The study sought to compare the responsiveness of children with autism to computer-generated or animated characters versus their responsiveness to humans. Researchers provided a relational script to students with ASD and tracked whether students elicited similar or different verbal and gestural responses to the script. 


As part of the study, children were encouraged to interact directly with:


  1. A skilled human therapist (e.g., speech language pathologist)
  2. A human-controlled interactive avatar in a theme park
  3. A human actor speaking like the avatar (untrained to facilitate interactions with ASD students)
  4. Cartoon videos in which characters sought social responses

Each of the four modes was structured to encourage the students to elicit the same number of verbal and gestural responses from each of the students. 


The trained therapist was a newcomer to the children. All of the children were familiar with the cartoon videos used and each had been in speech therapy and/or ABA treatment at the time of the study. 


Key Questions and Results

The first question the researchers explored related to how attentive the children were in each of the four different modes. The researchers acknowledged that it has been stated in many journal articles and elsewhere that people believe students with ASD prefer to attend and relate to non-human characters. 


Question 1: Are children with ASD more attentive to non-human characters?


Results showed that attention was the same across the four modes. There was no difference in students’ abilities to attend across the four conditions. This suggests that animation does not necessarily increase a child with autism’s ability to attend to information. This is important to note as it means the results outlined below were not due to differing levels of social attention to the human versus the avatar or the cartoon characters.  


Question 2. Which of the four interactive modes solicited the most verbal and gestural responses from each child? 


Results: An experienced human (therapist) elicited superior rate of responses on gestural and verbal measures when compared to the human-controlled interactive avatar and the human actor. 


When comparing the interactive avatar to the human actor, they found that the interactive avatar elicited more responses. 


The poorest response by the children in the study was to the cartoon characters.  


The article is an interesting read for parents and professionals who wrestle with understanding the most efficient and satisfying/motivating ways to help our children develop social language and relationship skills. 


The research study included a far deeper discussion than is offered here, but the general results of this study encourage us to consider that:


  • Trained treatment professionals may provide the most effective treatment results 
  • Our children with ASD do not appear to have superior attention to characters presented via technology 
  • Trained professionals may be more effective in scaffolding the presentation of information and making on-the-spot adjustments to encourage children to respond in a gradually more complex manner 
  • When using any mode of engagement (human, avatar, or cartoon) an important component is being able to encourage a response, wait for actual responses from the child, and then modify or adapt further interactions based on how a child responds.

In summary, as our children have more time and opportunities to learn through  technology and programs provided on computer, tablet, or cell phone screens, be aware that this may not be providing them with more opportunities to learn communication skills! 


Reference

Carter, EJ., Williams, DL., Hodgins, JK. & Lehman, JF. (2014). 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. Volume 44, pages 2475-2485. 

Related Articles

5 Teaching Ideas Connected to Pixar's Movie Inside Out

Author(s): Michelle Garcia Winner

Disney Pixar’s Inside Out gave creative attention to the feelings inside all of us. However, Riley, the protagonist, did a poor job of communicating and regulating her feelings – which led to trouble. To learn from Riley’s mistakes, here are five lessons for teaching kids to identify, communicate, and regulate their feelings.

Read More

Updates on Social Thinking’s Cascade of Social Attention: A Conceptual Framework to Explore a Systems Approach to Social-Communication

Author(s): Michelle Garcia Winner and Dr. Pamela Crooke

As interventionists (parents and professionals) who are seeking to develop meaningful treatment programs for teaching social skills, it’s helpful for us to consider key aspects of the social learning system, starting with one of its main drivers: social attention. The Cascade of Social Attention helps us take a systems approach to exploring social communication and related anxieties while also helping us observe that different students pay attention in different ways to different things - and therefore have different learning needs.

Read More

Problem Solving Is At the Heart of Social Thinking

Author(s): Michelle Garcia Winner

In the late 1990s I introduced to the public the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition. ILAUGH is an acronym that represents some of the core aspects of social cognition and related social skills that typically-developing preschool children acquire through routine exploration and interaction within their social worlds. These include Initiating communication, Listening with our eyes and ears, Abstracting and inferencing, Understanding perspective, Getting the main idea, and engaging in Humor and Human relationships.

Read More

Related Products

Copyright © 2017 Think Social Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
View Cart Cart Items

Your Shopping Cart

Your Savings

Order Subtotal

Keep Browsing View Cart