Investigating a 'virtual tutor' approach for improving the communication skills of children with autism

Herring, Paul; Sheehy, Kieron and Jones, Roger (2009). Investigating a 'virtual tutor' approach for improving the communication skills of children with autism. In: ALT-C 2009 "In Dreams Begins Responsibility": Choice, Evidence and Change, 8-10 Sep 2009, Manchester, UK, Association for learning technology.


Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder estimated to affect 1 in 100 children in the United Kingdom (NAS, 2008). Children with autism have specific difficulties developing verbal and non-verbal communication. A diagnosis of autism is typically given at around three to four years of age. Research suggests that interventions using for example, a symbol-based form of communication as in the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), is most effective when undertaken as early as practical, but this requires the extensive use of limited specialist resources and the training of parents and carers.
Interventions using Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) have shown considerable promise in promoting the development of communication skills for children with autism. Being able to present key tasks with consistency and without tutor fatigue (Cromby, 1996) has been shown as beneficial for teaching children with autism. Combining these features with a tangible interface has been indicated as a promising avenue for those children with autism who have more severe learning difficulties (Sitdhisanguan, 2008). The use of CAL in this way might address the problem of accessing currently limited specialist resources. In particular the use of a virtual tutor has been noted as having potential in this context (Sheridan and Raffield, 2008).
To understand how effectively a CAL based PECS system could support and promote symbol-based communication , and support the generalisation of skills necessary for symbol-based communication, our study has adopted a virtual tutor led teaching system that exploits Radio Freqeuncy Identification (RFID) enabled tokens, similar in look and feel to those used in traditional PECS user-system interactions. The study will include a consideration of the characteristics of the virtual tutor which best facilitate learning.
This paper will look at how a computer-based 'virtual tutor' can be developed to teach early communication skills to young children with autism, who have limited or no speech. The paper will outline the features of this approach, which is currently being developed, and the rationale underpinning this new way of working with non-verbal children with autism.

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