'Virtual child' helps train people working with kids with autism

By Laura Lovett
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Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell are currently developing a “virtual child”  for professionals and students working with kids living with autism spectrum disorder. The learning tool will allow these caregivers an opportunity to practice behavioral interventions outside of a real-world situation. 

“The biggest challenge educators face — especially those who train employees in their agencies — is that practice must occur one-on-one with a single child,” Richard Serna, associate professor and interim chair of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, wrote in an email to MobiHealthNews. “This product could help prepare an employee, student, or potential employee more efficiently — and at their leisure — to work with a child. In addition, it provides “do no harm” training. Think flight simulator.”

Serna recently landed a $250,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to address the acute need for professionals trained in behavioral intervention, according to a statement released by UMass Lowell. 

One in 68 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of children diagnosed with autism increased by 119.4 percent, the agency reported. 

The virtual child can be used to help train new employees, college students, special education teachers, paraprofessionals and even parents, Serna said. It provides and opportunity for trainees to practice teaching methods they already learned in a more traditional setting.

Serna gave the example of practicing discrete trial training, which is a highly structured approach to teaching a child where a practitioner provides many trials that include the delivery of instruction, the response of the child, a prompt for the correct response, and positive praise or error correction for the child.

The tool also gives feedback to the user. If the trainee implements the procedure correctly he or she can move on to the next lesson. However, if the user does not implement the skill correctly, the software provides feedback until the user has mastered the technique. 

The project is still in its infancy but the researchers have already successfully developed a similar product that was also interactive. However, instead of an animated child, they used a child actor to produce video clips, Serna said. 

Researchers decided to create a virtual boy because males are impacted by ASD four-to-five times more frequently than females. 

The product has the capacity to expand and potentially go international, according to Serna, as there is a need for this kind of training in China, Brazil, and Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

“Fundamentally, acquiring knowledge about a behavioral intervention procedure is relatively easy; practicing the skill with a child with autism is more difficult, because each child is different,” Serna said in an email. “This product could provide many more opportunities for agency employees, university students, individuals seeking employment in the field to have practiced and be more ready to work with live children. Of course, this [product] would never take the place of live practice; it just makes live practice more successful and efficient.”