Embedding novel and surprising elements in touch-screen games for children with autism: creating experiences “worth communicating about”
Alcorn, Alyssa Marie
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Relative infrequency of communication initiation, particularly initiations that involve attention-sharing or other social purposes, appears to negatively impact the later-life outcomes of children with autism. Strategies to improve or encourage initiation skills in autism are hampered by the need for the behaviour to be spontaneous (i.e. unprompted by a partner). One potential approach that addresses the spontaneity issue is to extrinsically motivate initiations by changing aspects of the child’s environment such that they merit, or even demand, initiating a communication. Detecting subjectively inconsistent (i.e. discrepant) aspects in game-like virtual contexts appears to be something that inherently interests young children with autism, and can motivate them to initiate spontaneous, positive communications. Initial evidence for discrepancy as a communicative motivator came from a study which re-analysed video data from an existing autism and technology project (ECHOES), illustrating that a heterogeneous group of children all reacted frequently and socially to naturally occurring (i.e. unintentional, non-designed) discrepant aspects within ECHOES. A set of high-level design principles was developed in order to capture “lessons learned” from ECHOES that might facilitate re-creation of a similar pattern of spontaneous, positive initiation around discrepancy. A second, proof-of-concept study implemented these design principles in a set of three new touch-screen games (Andy’s Garden) that sought to establish, and then deliberately violate, child expectations (i.e. provide discrepancy-detection opportunities: DDOs). Children reacted socially and positively to the new games and DDOs. The results of this study allow us to answer its overall questions affirmatively: it is possible to motivate children’s communication–specifically, their initiation–by including deliberately-designed DDOs in a set of games. These findings are the first step towards determining whether discrepancy-detection opportunities may form a component of a future technology-based communication skills intervention, capable of changing children’s initiation behaviour outside of a game context.