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An Interactive Social Tutoring System to Improve and Measure Social Goals for Students with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders

SBIR Phase I

Project Info

Project Description

ID: H133S100053
TERM: 10/10 – 04/11

Recent reports indicate both marked increases in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and a significant need for effective interventions to minimize the disabilities associated with ASD. This need is especially great for children with higher functioning ASD who are generally included in regular education classrooms, but struggle significantly with social difficulties. Students with high functioning ASD face unique challenges with social skills and social relationships. Without intervention, these social difficulties and associated mental health problems may interfere significantly with students’ functioning at school. Social goals are frequently included as part of students’ Individualized Education Plans, however few scientifically-verified treatments are available for use by school professionals. Given the current educational trend toward Response to Intervention models in which classroom-based data collection is a central component, tools that assist teachers and support staff with data collection and student progress monitoring are greatly needed.

The goal of this SBIR Phase I project was to respond to this intervention need by developing a prototype of a computer-based interactive social tutoring system (ISTS) for students with high functioning ASD. The ISTSsoftware program, named HippoCampus Adventures, was designed to enhance social understanding and to document student progress made towards specific measureable social goals. When using the program, students engage with animated characters to solve specific social tasks representing core social skills: Verbal Communication, Nonverbal Communication, Perspective Taking, Initiation, Impulse Control, and Emotion Regulation. Interactions with the ISTS are tracked by the software so that teachers can generate reports regarding a given student’s performance, overall social skill level, and learning trends for specific social goals

During Phase I of this project, prototype scenes for each of the six units were fully developed (e.g., scripts written, animation created, software developed). Phase I testing was conducted with key stakeholders, including kindergarten through second grade students and their parents, as well as school-based mental health and teaching professionals who work with students with ASD. Parent and professional ratings were very positive and supported full development of the product.

In addition, results showed that students’ performance on the HippoCampus Adventures program was meaningfully related to scores on independent parent report measures. Higher performance across the computer-based ISTS social problem solving tasks was significantly related to higher motivation to interact with others socially, higher ability to engage with others socially, and less frequent disengagement (to be alone or separate) from peers. Overall, results of testing supported the value and feasibility of the product, and key recommendations from participants will be incorporated in the Phase II full development plan.