Virtual environments may expand opportunities for children with autism

An innovative eye-tracking technology has now created real time experience of interaction between a child and a computerised character, which allows a child with autism to understand how visual signals aid understanding .

Interactive computer-generated characters are helping children with autism to improve their social skills and learn to interact better with people as part of research developments at Heriot-Watt.

I have been working on eye tracking systems that can read where a child's eyes go and trigger the computerised character to follow the child's gaze. This gives the impression that the character is really responding to where you look. The hope is one day to create a virtual character who will always respond to the child with autism, encouraging the kind of social interaction that is often very difficult for him or her

Dr Thusha Rajendran, Reader in Psychology 

Eye tracking systems

While many parents fear the incursions of video games and related activity into children's leisure and learning, Heriot-Watt scientists are using similar virtual environments to connect with children with autism. An innovative eye-tracking technology has now created real time experience of interaction between a child and a computerised character, which allows a child with autism to understand how visual signals aid understanding .

Dr Thusha Rajendran, Reader in Psychology, said, "In conjunction with colleagues from the University of Strathclyde (Gillian Little, Dr Lizann Bonnar, Dr Stephen Butler) I have been working on eye tracking systems that can read where a child's eyes go and trigger the computerised character to follow the child's gaze. This gives the impression that the character is really responding to where you look. The hope is one day to create a virtual character who will always respond to the child with autism, encouraging the kind of social interaction that is often very difficult for him or her.

"Earlier studies have found that children with autism can use our interactive systems, always with the help of a carer or teacher, to help the child concentrate better and crucially learn the basics of social interaction. Our work ties in to the broader debate about children and technology by showing how it can benefit people who are currently excluded from mainstream society."

Welfare Technology

Dr Rajendran's team is now undertaking practical research in a school environment working with New Struan School in Alloa. Eventually they hope their technology will be commonplace equipment in the classroom. It is part of what Dr Rajendran calls 'welfare technology', a concept that has been developed in countries such as Denmark to enhance the lives of those with disabilities.

In the UK, it is considered that one person in every 100 has some form of autism. It is a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way a person communicates, interacts with others and processes information. While some people will have more subtle difficulties, others will have complex needs requiring more intensive support.

The behaviours and challenges typically associated with autism are often as a result of differences in thinking and how people with the condition understand the world.