'Virtual child' helping researchers to learn more about autism

BOSTON — As more children get diagnosed on the autism disorder spectrum, keeping up with the growing need for trained professionals to help them has been challenging.

One in 68 children in the United States has been diagnosed, according to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

A training tool being developed the University of Massachusetts at Lowell recently got a grant of $250,000 to help fill that need.

They are creating an interactive teaching tool for professionals called The Virtual Child.

The first generation of their project featured young actors portraying children with autism. Those actors will be replaced by computer generated characters to teach the best way to interact with children diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

The person being trained controls how the child is asked some simple questions.

They are then prompted to respond to whether the child’s answers were correct.

The child needs to get a timely and appropriate response, or the trainee receives feedback and a chance for a do over.

UMass Lowell Associate Professor of Psychology Richard Serna said, “I wanted to combine my interest in technology with ways to help folks who have developmental disabilities learn better.”

Associate Professor Charles Hamad, of the UMass Medical School, is also working on this project.

Serna said the Virtual Child fits into a pattern of using simulations to train health care workers.

“There’s simulation of patients, and I thought, 'Why can't we simulate an individual with autism and leverage the kinds of game technology that's currently out there to entertain teenagers,'" Serna said.

Susan Senator, of Brookline, started dealing with autism when her son Nat was diagnosed 25 years ago.

Appropriate care was tough to find back then.

Senator has now written several books on autism and thinks technology can be a piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving the quality of services.

“There's got to be an explanation or education on how to connect with a person who might present very differently," Senator said. "How to be not judgmental, and accepting, and trying to keep that connection, because these people with autism want to connect.”

Researchers in Lowell hope that a virtual connection can lead to some real ones.

The grant from the National Institute of Mental Health will help get the updated program into use sooner.

Professor Serna thinks they could have it out in three years.

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