Researchers Invent “Virtual Child” as a Stepping Stone from Social Isolation to Cooperative Play

For children with autism, a classroom full of other kids can be pretty scary. It may be easy to play or talk by oneself, but as soon as the activity involves interacting with another child or several other children, it’s much harder to make the appropriate adjustments to be able to communicate effectively in a group.

That’s where Sam comes in. Developed by researchers at Northwestern University, Sam’s a life-size virtual friend who helps kids like ten-year-old Charles bridge the gap from social isolation to real world connections. He appears on a television screen and plays games with each child, as a researcher plays “Wizard of Oz” behind the scenes, prompting Sam to say the right things to help children with autism understand how to cooperate with another person their own age.

“We see virtual children as an intermediate step between social isolation and living in a social community with other children,” says Justine Cassell of Northwestern University. She believes most children with autism cannot understand that other people’s viewpoints might be different from their own, contributing to their inability to effectively communicate with others, as it is not a perceived need.

Check out the video below to learn more about this interesting piece of technology and how it’s helping kids learn about social interaction.

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