Design and evaluation of a CAL system to support communication development in children with autism

Herring, Paul John (2015). Design and evaluation of a CAL system to support communication development in children with autism. PhD thesis The Open University.



The prevalence of autism in children in the United Kingdom is estimated as one in one hundred (Department of Health, 2012), with higher levels reported in some countries (Srivastava, 2013). These children experience significant problems with the development of language and communication skills. A symbol-based communication system called Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is widely used to address this issue and evidence indicates this approach can be effective when administered by trained professionals (Preston and Carter, 2009).

Technology appears to offer an alternative way of encouraging non-verbal children with autism to use symbol-based communication to improve social interaction and communication. Therefore, the purpose of the research was to answer the following research questions:

1. Can a Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) system be designed and implemented to support PECS pedagogy for the purpose of improving symbol communication and social interaction in non-verbal children with autism?

2. To what extent could such a system improve the communication and social interaction skills of non-verbal children with autism?

The investigation comprised three stages. In Stage 1, a prototype system was developed incorporating a 'virtual tutor' and an RFID-based (radio frequency identification) user interface to support physical symbol selection and placement.

In Stage 2, a pilot study focused on classroom learning experiences of eight children using CAPE Version 1. Results provided ‘proof of concept’ and indicated that non-verbal children with autism learned to interact effectively with CAPE. Participants achieved more appropriate symbol selections when a virtual tutor used a synthetic voice compared to a natural voice alternative. Outcomes from the pilot informed the development of a CAPE Version 2.

Stage 3 comprised a four-week classroom study involving five non-verbal children with autism. Children, using CAPE Version 2, answered numeracy questions using graphic symbols. Interviews from supporting teachers provided a degree of triangulation with investigator observations and teacher interviews. Stage 3 results suggest that four participants developed their communication skills, one child learned to count, three children improved basic numeracy skills and two children used speech using CAPE version 2, supported by a virtual tutor and a human teacher. This research suggests that non-verbal children with autism can engage positively and productively with PECS using the CAPE approach.

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