Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 41, Issue 11, pp 1543–1555 | Cite as

Avatar Assistant: Improving Social Skills in Students with an ASD Through a Computer-Based Intervention

  • Ingrid Maria HopkinsEmail author
  • Michael W. Gower
  • Trista A. Perez
  • Dana S. Smith
  • Franklin R. Amthor
  • F. Casey Wimsatt
  • Fred J. Biasini
Original paper


This study assessed the efficacy of FaceSay, a computer-based social skills training program for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). This randomized controlled study (N = 49) indicates that providing children with low-functioning autism (LFA) and high functioning autism (HFA) opportunities to practice attending to eye gaze, discriminating facial expressions and recognizing faces and emotions in FaceSay’s structured environment with interactive, realistic avatar assistants improved their social skills abilities. The children with LFA demonstrated improvements in two areas of the intervention: emotion recognition and social interactions. The children with HFA demonstrated improvements in all three areas: facial recognition, emotion recognition, and social interactions. These findings, particularly the measured improvements to social interactions in a natural environment, are encouraging.


Autism Intervention Emotion recognition Facial recognition Social interactions Generalization 



This study was funded in part by a grant from Civitan International. The author thanks the Autism Lab at UAB, Dr. Franklin R. Amthor as well as Casey Wimsatt, Symbionica, LLC. This paper is adapted from the author’s dissertation.


  1. Adolph, R., Tranel, D., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. R. (1994). Impaired recognition of emotion in facial expressions following bilateral damage to the human amygdala. Nature, 372, 669–672.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). DC: Washington.Google Scholar
  3. Autism Society of America. (2003). New autism facts. Advocate, 36(1).Google Scholar
  4. Bailey, K. J. (2001). Social competence of children with autism classified as best-outcome following behavior analytic treatment. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B the Sciences and Engineering, 61(12-B), 6696.Google Scholar
  5. Baron-Cohen, S., Ring, H. A., Bullmore, E. T., Wheelwright, S., Ashwin, A., & Williams, P. (2002). Social intelligence in the normal and autistic brain: An fMRI study. European Journal of Neuroscience, 11, 1891–1898.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., & Jolliffe, T. (1997). Is there a “language of the eyes”? Evidence from normal adults and adults with Autism or Asperger syndrome. Visual Cognition, 4, 311–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bartlett, J. C., & Searcy, J. (1993). Inversion and configuration of faces. Cognitive Psychology, 25, 281–316.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Benton, A. L. (1980). The neuropsychology of facial recognition. American Psychologist, 35, 176–186.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bernard-Opitz, V. (1989). Computer assisted instruction for autistic children. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 17, 125–130.Google Scholar
  10. Bernard-Opitz, V., Sriram, N., & Nakhoda-Sapuan, S. (2001). Enhancing social problem solving in children with autism and normal children through computer-assisted instruction. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 377–398.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bölte, S., Feineis-Matthews, S., Leber, S., Dierks, T., Hubl, D., & Poustka, F. (2002). The development and evaluation of a computer-based program to test and to teach the recognition of facial affect. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 61(Suppl 2), 61–68.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Bosseler, A., & Massaro, D. W. (2003). Development and evaluation of a computer-animated tutor for vocabulary and language learning in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33, 653–673.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Boucher, J., & Lewis, V. (1991). Unfamiliar face recognition in relatively able autistic children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 843–859.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Chen, S. H., & Bernard-Opitz, V. (1993). Comparison of personal and computer-assisted instruction for children with autism. Mental Retardation, 31, 368–376.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Cohen, J. (1960). A coefficient of agreement for nominal scales. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 20, 37–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Colby, K. (1973). The rationale for computer-based treatment of language difficulties in non-speaking autistic children. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 3, 254–260.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Corbett, B. A., & Abdullah, M. (2005). Video Modeling: Why does it work for children with autism? Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 2(1), 2–8.Google Scholar
  18. Davies, S., Bishop, D., Manstead, A. S., & Tantam, M. (1994). Face perception in children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 35, 1033–1058.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1975). Unmasking the face. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  20. Faja, S., Aylward, E., Bernier, R., & Dawson, G. (2008). Becoming a face expert: A computerize face-training program for high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Developmental Neuropsychology, 33, 1–24.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fleiss, J. L. (1981). Statistical methods for rates and proportions. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.Google Scholar
  22. Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  23. Gauthier, I., Skudlarski, P., Gore, J. C., & Anderson, A. W. (2000). Expertise for cars and birds recruits brain areas involved in face recognition. Nature Neuroscience, 3, 191–197.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Golan, O., Ashwin, A., Granader, Y., McClintock, S., Day, K., Leggett, V., et al. (2010). Enhancing emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum conditions: An intervention using animated vehicles with real emotional faces. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 269–279.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Golan, O., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2006). Systemizing empathy: Teaching adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism to recognize complex emotions using interactive multimedia. Development and Psychopathology, 18(2), 591–617.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Goldsmith, T. R., & LeBlanc, L. A. (2004). Use of technology in interventions for children with autism. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 1(2), 166–178.Google Scholar
  27. Gresham, F. M. (1981). Assessment of children’s social skills. Journal of School Psychology, 19, 120–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gresham, F. M., & Elliott, S. N. (1990). Social skills rating system manual. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.Google Scholar
  29. Hauck, M., Fein, D., Waterhouse, L., & Feinstein, C. (1995). Social initiations by autistic children to adults and other children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 129–154.Google Scholar
  30. Heiman, M., Nelson, K. E., Tjus, T., & Gillberg, C. (1995). Increasing reading and communication skills in children with autism through an interactive multimedia computer program. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 25, 459–480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hobson, R. P. (1986). The autistic child’s appraisal of expressions of emotion. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27, 321–342.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hopkins, M., & Biasini, F. (2005). Children with fragile x syndrome and children with autism show distinct impairments in emotional understanding. Presented at the American psychological society conference, New York, NY.Google Scholar
  33. Joseph, R. M., & Tanaka, J. (2003). Holistic and part-based face recognition in children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 529–542.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kaufman, A. S., & Kaufman, N. L. (1990). Kaufman brief intelligence test. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.Google Scholar
  35. Koegel, R. L., Koegel, L. K., & McNerney, E. K. (2001). Pivotal areas in intervention for autism. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 27, 233–243.Google Scholar
  36. LaCava, P., Golan, O., Baron-Cohen, S., & Smith Myles, B. (2007). Using assistive technology to teach emotion recognition to students with Asperger syndrome: A pilot study. Remedial and Special Education, 28, 174–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. LaCava, P., Rankin, A., Mahlios, E., Cook, K., & Simpson, R. (2010). A single case design evaluation of a software and tutor intervention addressing emotion recognition and social interaction in four boys with ASD. Autism, 14, 161–178.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Langdell, T. (1978). Recognition of faces: An approach to the study of autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 19, 255–268.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Mundy, P. (2003). Annotation: The neural basis of social impairments in autism: The role of the dorsal medial-frontal cortex and anterior cingulated system. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 793–809.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ozonoff, S., Pennington, B., & Rogers, S. (1990). Are there specific emotion perception deficits in young autistic children? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31, 342–361.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Panyan, M. V. (1984). Computer technology for autistic students. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 14, 375–382.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Perry, A., Condillac, R., Freeman, N. L., Dunn-Geier, J., & Belair, J. (2005). Multi-site study of the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) in five clinical groups of young children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35, 625–634.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rhodes, G. (1988). Looking at face: First-order and second order features as determinants of facial appearance. Perception, 17, 43–63.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Sasson, N. J. (2006). The development of face processing in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 381–394.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Schopler, E., Reichler, R. J., & Renner, B. R. (1988). The childhood autism rating scale (CARS). Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.Google Scholar
  46. Schultz, R. T., Gauthier, I., Klin, A., Fulbright, R. K., Anderson, A. W., Volkmar, F., et al. (2000). Abnormal ventrical temporal cortical activity during face discrimination among individual with autism and Asperger syndrome. Archives of General Psychiatry, 57, 331–340.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Shah, A., & Frith, U. (1993). Why do autistic individuals show superior performance on the block design task? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34, 1351–1364.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Silver, M., & Oakes, P. (2001). Evaluation of a new computer intervention to teach people with autism or Asperger syndrome to recognize and predict emotions in others. Autism, 5, 299–316.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Sullivan, L. A. (1996). Facial recognition of emotions by children and adults. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B The Sciences and Engineering, 57(11-B), 7253.Google Scholar
  50. Tanaka, J. W., Lincoln, S., & Hegg, L. (2003). A framework for the study and treatment of face processing deficits in autism. In G. Schwarzer & H. Leder (Eds.), The development of face processing (pp. 101–119). Ashland, OH: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.Google Scholar
  51. Tanaka, J. W., Wolf, J. M., Klaiman, C., Koenig, K., Cockburn, J., Herlihy, L., et al. (2010). Using computerized games to teach face recognition skills to children with autism spectrum disorder: the Let’s Face It! program. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(8), 944–952.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Teal, M. B., & Wiebe, M. J. (1986). A validity analysis of selected instruments used to assess autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 16, 485–494.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Whalen, C., Moss, D., Ilan, A., Vaupel, M., Fielding, P., Macdonald, K., et al. (2010). Efficacy of TeachTown: Basics computer-assisted intervention for the Intesntive Comprehensive Autism Program in Los Angeles Unified School District. Autism, 14, 179–197.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Williams White, S., Keonig, K., & Scahill, L. (2007). Social skills development in children with autism spectrum disorders: A review of the intervention research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(10), 1858–1868.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Yamamoto, J., & Miya, T. (1999). Acquisition and transfer of sentence construction in autistic students: Analysis of computer-based teaching. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 20, 355–377.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ingrid Maria Hopkins
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michael W. Gower
    • 1
  • Trista A. Perez
    • 1
  • Dana S. Smith
    • 1
  • Franklin R. Amthor
    • 1
  • F. Casey Wimsatt
    • 2
  • Fred J. Biasini
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Alabama at BirminghamBirminghamUSA
  2. 2.Symbionica, LLCSan JoseUSA

Personalised recommendations