Helping autistic children with technology

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
April 24, 2008 3:26:07 PM PDT
For autistic children, things like socializing and story-telling are a challenge. But a new tool is making things easier. Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg to explain.

Kids with autism have trouble listening and responding, but they may get some help from a virtual friend. Technology could help previously isolated kids make connections in the real world.

Ten-year-old Charles, who has autism, is happy to tell you a story by himself.

But when asked to collaborate with another child on a story, he doesn't have much to say. Justine Cassell of Northwestern University explains one theory about why that is.

"These children are not able to conceive of another person having a perspective on the world that's different from their own," Justine Cassell at Northwestern University said.

To address that deficit, Cassel has created a life-sized virtual pal named Sam. Sam helps autistic kids practice the back-and-forth exchange of conversation-- a skill that's essential for making social connections and learning in the classroom.

This clever interface lets researcher Andrea Tartaro play "Wizard of Oz" behind the curtain. Sam's verbal and non-verbal responses were developed from years of studying how kids naturally play together.

And since Charles, like many autistic children, likes technology, the researchers give him a turn at the controls. Cassell hopes Sam can be a bridge to the real world.

"We see virtual children as an intermediate step between social isolation and living in a social community with other children," Justine Cassell said.

Charles' dad is excited by the results.

"First thing Charlie said when he came in to see me is, 'I have a new virtual friend, daddy! You know, we told stories together,'" Charles' father, Robert Heckman said. "Just that being comfortable is wonderful."

Cassell says this kind of connection is essential-- not just for socializing, but also for learning math, science, and literature.

Researchers think one day Sam could run independently in any web browser, making collaborative storytelling accessible to any autistic child with access to a computer.

For the latest on Sam, the virtual peer, visit

For more information on research and autism, visit links below:

  • Autism Speaks and Cure Autism Now
  • National Association of Autism