Flinders University PhD candidate Marissa Milne is using the Thinking Head – an advanced artificial intelligence program designed by a team of Australian researchers including those from Flinders – to create a social skills tutoring program that teaches children with autism how to interact and socialise.
The software, which features multiple lifelike ‘faces’, includes a series of activities with varying degrees of difficulty to demonstrate appropriate greetings and ways of engaging in conversation, with an automated assessment tool to track progress.
Aimed at children in mainstream primary schools, the computer program is designed so that participants can practice certain activities they struggle with, or progress onto more challenging content based on how well they perform in previous lessons.
“The educational tool covers social skills such as appropriate things to say and do, how to deal with unexpected reactions, starting and ending conversations and turn taking,” Ms Milne, based in the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics, said.
“The key element of the program is that it both models different social encounters and gives explicit instruction – unlike their typically developing peers who learn by mimicking, children with autism often need to be explicitly taught what to do, when and why,” she said.
“Children with autism also have communication difficulties so the software has been purposely designed to be very visual and avoid activities where they have to type answers, which would also preclude younger children from using it.”
While still in the development phase, the software is expected to be trialled by primary school-aged children over a three-week period early next year, with participants recruited through Autism SA.
Ms Milne said the computer program was not intended to replace traditional forms of therapy but complement them.
“It’s something they can do for a few minutes at home on a daily basis to build on the skills they learn through existing interventions they’re involved in, such as group therapy.
“As children with autism often have a particular aptitude for technology, it makes sense to harness advanced artificial intelligence to complement the growing demand for social skills interventions.”