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Autistic kids may one day learn social interaction through avatars

A 4-year-old autistic boy undergoing intensive therapy viewed through the spectacles of a care worker in an observation room.

While the advent of eye-tracking technology may be exciting for Google Glass wearers and Microsoft Xbox Kinect enthusaists, the innovation is also potentially electrifying for the autism community. Yesterday, as part of Marketplace Tech's week long series Mind Games: Mental Health and Virtual Reality, host Ben Johnson looked at how video games are being used as a therapy for people on the autism spectrum. Today, Marketplace Tech talks with child psychologist Dr. Micah Mazurek, assistant professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri, about how games might impact autistic people's social interactions in the near future.

"Because we now know that children are fascinated by this technology, and that children with autism may be especially motivated by it, I think it really leads us to think about innovative technologies that might capitalize on that," Mazurek says. "So maybe developing games or virtual reality systems that can help to teach social communication skills for children with autism in this technology based way."

Mazurek says autistic children could potentially benefit from games that incorporate eye tracking technology, such as the kind found in Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor.

"One example might be developing a game-based or virtual reality-based system that can monitor virtual social behaviors," she says. "Some of these systems are even being developed to be sensitive to eye gaze, so they can track where the participant is looking on the screen. And if they're making eye contact with the avatar, then they're going to be rewarded within that game system. And then we would hope that those skills would then generalize out into the real world."

But Mazurek says the results are far from proven yet. At this time, she wouldn't recommend autistic children work with an avatar over a real therapist.

"I think one of the messages that our lab would like to get out there is that we need to proceed with caution, because we don't yet know if those technologies are going to be effective in a meaningful way. So we don't want to set up a situation where even the interventions we are delivering are technology based, then limiting their potential social interactions outside of that."

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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