Children get social with virtual peers

Life-size 3-D versions of children can draw kids with autism into social encounters

PARK CITY, Utah — Children with autism and related developmental disorders typically can’t carry on a conversation or play cooperatively with peers. Encouragingly, though, life-size virtual youngsters displayed on large computer screens can draw kids with autism into social encounters, psychologist Justine Cassell of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., reported June 5 at a meeting of the Jean Piaget Society, which focuses on research about psychological development.

In a preliminary investigation, Cassell and her colleagues examined turn-taking and other conversational skills in 12 pairs of 7- to 11-year-olds. In six pairs, children with autism were partnered with peers of their choosing who had no developmental conditions. In another six pairs, youngsters free of developmental problems worked with partners who also had no developmental complications.

Participants had to use a toy castle and an array of other toys to tell a story, first with their partner and later with a virtual peer. Those virtual peers were 3-D, computerized versions of children programmed to carry on conversations and react appropriately to what real-life partners said in various situations. Virtual kids were designed to be patient with conversation partners, give a lot of feedback to their partners and pause briefly before taking a turn in a conversation.

Unlike kids free of developmental disorders, children with autism contributed to stories, took turns in conversations, looked at their partners and suggested new story ideas more often with virtual peers than with flesh-and-blood partners. Cassell plans to explore whether regular exposure to computerized friends translates into improved real-life interactions for children with autism.  – Bruce Bower

Self-views on the reservation
Young Native Americans from poor families hold views that influence work habits and school achievement

PARK CITY, Utah — By age 5, children from poor families living on a Native American reservation in Washington hold views about their intelligence and their race that influence how hard they work in school and what grades they get, a new study indicates.

Children who bounced back from criticism in an experiment administered before the school year began also tried hard to learn and earned good grades by the end of the school year, psychologist Stephanie Fryberg of the University of Arizona in Tucson reported June 5 at a meeting of the Jean Piaget Society.

In a role-playing experiment Fryberg and colleagues recently conducted at the reservation, children heard stories about a doll that they had chosen to represent themselves. The doll spills milk. A doll representing a teacher reprimands the child doll for failing to clean up correctly. Some kids quickly generated ideas for performing a satisfactory clean-up job, a sign that they regard their intelligence as a malleable characteristic open to improvement, Fryberg holds. These kids labeled themselves as “good students” at the time and later proved to be high-achievers in school.

Kids who acted helpless and panicky after their dolls got reprimanded described themselves as “bad students.” During school, they made little effort and got poor grades. These children view their own intelligence as deficient and unchangeable, in Fryberg’s view.

High-achievers generally came from families with no alcohol or drug abuse and had good relationships with their grandparents. Low-achievers often endured various forms of abuse at home and had parents who worked nights at a nearby casino, according to Fryberg.

Youngsters also displayed a keen appreciation of racial issues that fed into their academic performance. In another experiment with the same children, high-achieving Native American children usually chose a white doll to represent a good student and then chose another white doll to portray themselves. Low achievers also picked a white doll as a good student but selected a Native American doll as their personal stand-in.

Fryberg studied 69 children in kindergarten, first grade or second grade. Most were Native American. A few came from Latino families living on the reservation.– Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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