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Are Children with Autism More Responsive to Animated Characters? A Study of Interactions with Humans and Human-Controlled Avatars


Few direct comparisons have been made between the responsiveness of children with autism to computer-generated or animated characters and their responsiveness to humans. Twelve 4- to 8-year-old children with autism interacted with a human therapist; a human-controlled, interactive avatar in a theme park; a human actor speaking like the avatar; and cartoon characters who sought social responses. We found superior gestural and verbal responses to the therapist; intermediate response levels to the avatar and the actor; and poorest responses to the cartoon characters, although attention was equivalent across conditions. These results suggest that even avatars that provide live, responsive interactions are not superior to human therapists in eliciting verbal and non-verbal communication from children with autism in this age range.

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Financial support for this research was provided by Disney Research, Pittsburgh. We wish to thank Lori Georganna for facilitating all aspects of our interaction with the theme park, as well as Casey Lovoy, Dana Barvinchak, Mk Haley, Brooke Kelly, Chelsea Kogelschatz, Dayna Rubendall, and Breanna Fisher for their assistance in performing this research. We thank the Autism Society of America and the Autism Society of Greater Orlando for their help in recruiting.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth J. Carter or Jill F. Lehman.

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Carter, E.J., Williams, D.L., Hodgins, J.K. et al. Are Children with Autism More Responsive to Animated Characters? A Study of Interactions with Humans and Human-Controlled Avatars. J Autism Dev Disord 44, 2475–2485 (2014).

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  • Autism
  • Animated characters
  • Computer-assisted technology
  • Computer-based interactions
  • Communication
  • Avatars