A New Video Game-Like Assessment Activity Can Easily Measure Social Information Processing Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may have difficulty processing and responding to social cues. Social information processing (SIP) is the ability to understand and reason through challenging social situations, such as conflict situations. Children who have difficulties with SIP may have trouble making and keeping friends, may be prone to aggressive behavior, or they may become targets of bullying. Identifying and understanding these difficulties can be the first step to helping children with ASD develop their problem-solving skills and better manage social relationships. Counselors and therapists can use tools like questionnaires and interviews to assess a child’s SIP skills, but some children may have difficulty imagining or visualizing themselves in challenging social situations. In a recent NIDILRR-funded study, researchers tested a new video game-like assessment activity designed to measure SIP skills in children. They wanted to find out how well the assessment measured children’s response tendencies across different scenarios, and whether it could discern SIP differences between children with and without ASD. The researchers also wanted to find out how easy the assessment was for children to use.

Researchers enrolled 50 children ages 8-12 in a study to test a new animated, avatar-based assessment called Virtual Environment for Social Information Processing, or VESIP. Twenty-one of the children had ASD, while the other 29 had no clinical diagnosis. All of the children completed the new assessment, either at their school or at a clinic testing site, and then answered questions about how easy it was to use and how much they enjoyed it.

VESIP uses 3-dimensional animated, avatar-based assessment that immerses the user in a simulated school environment, where the user must interpret and resolve interpersonal conflicts. At the beginning of the VESIP assessment, each child created a game character that was personalized to match their gender and ethnicity. Then, each child completed ten interactive scenarios in which their character encountered a challenging social situation. For example, in one scenario, another child took the last slice of the character’s favorite pizza. For each scenario, the children responded to seven multiple-choice or slider scale questions using the computer mouse: (1) “what do you want to do?” (2) “how sure are you that you can do that?” (3) “what just happened?” (4) “did they do that by accident or on purpose?” (5) “how mean were they?” (6) “how did you feel when that happened?” and (7) “how do you want things to turn out?” Responses to these questions were used to measure corresponding components of SIP: the child’s interpretations of the problem (e.g., why did they take the last slice of pizza); the child’s interpretation of the other character’s intent (e.g. was it by accident or on purpose); the child’s emotional reaction to the situation (e.g., how mean the child viewed the other character and how the child felt); the child’s goals for resolving the situation (e.g., wanting to work things out, get back at the other character, or avoid the situation); the child’s preferred solution (e.g., talking things out with the other character, involving an adult, walking away, or responding aggressively), and the child’s self-efficacy (e.g., how sure the child was they could carry out a preferred solution). Responses were scored so that more points were given for a positive social response (e.g., wanting to work things out), while fewer points were given for an aggressive, avoidant, or “don’t know” response. VESIP took about 40 minutes for each child to complete.

The researchers found that VESIP reliably measured the children’s response tendencies across scenarios, as each child’s responses tended to be similar across the ten scenarios. When the researchers compared responses between the children with and without ASD, they found that the children with ASD scored lower than the children without ASD on VESIP as a whole, as well as on the goal-setting and solution questions. This difference in SIP between children with and without ASD as measured by VESIP  was consistent with other types of SIP assessments. Specifically, the children with ASD were more likely than the children without ASD to prefer walking away from the conflict instead of trying to work things out, and the children with ASD were also more likely than the children without ASD to select the “don’t know” response to the “why did this happen?” and “how do you want things to turn out?” questions.

The researchers also found that VESIP was easy and enjoyable for the children to use. Most of the children rated VESIP as “very easy” to use. Children with and without ASD appreciated being able to design their characters and said they could relate to the situations portrayed in the program. In addition, 60% of the children said that they would prefer to take VESIP instead of being interviewed by an adult about their responses to social situations.

The authors noted that VESIP may have several advantages over other SIP measures for children with ASD. In this study, VESIP was easy and enjoyable for the children to use, and it could be completed relatively quickly. Unlike other assessments, VESIP does not rely on trained professionals to administer or score, and it can be administered over the Web. In addition, children with limited speech or reading abilities are still able to interact with VESIP using visual cues, spoken instructions, and the computer interface. Finally, VESIP can effectively measure multiple components of SIP, including the child’s interpretation of another person’s intentions, interpersonal goals, and preferred solutions to a conflict situation.

According to the authors, clinicians may want to combine VESIP with traditional parent or teacher ratings of children’s behavior in order to get a fuller picture of a child’s mental processes as well as their behavior in real-world settings. VESIP and other SIP assessments may be useful for educators and therapists to identify children with or without ASD who are at risk for social difficulties in making friends, managing aggression, or becoming targets of bullying, and provide the most appropriate instructional or emotional support. Such assessments may also be useful for evaluating the impact of social skills training programs.

To Learn More

Impact, a publication of The Research and Training Center on Community Living, dedicated a feature issue to Supporting Success in School and Beyond for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Among the articles in this issue are Ten things every child with autism wishes you knew and Teaching social skills to students on the autism spectrum.

More research and development in virtual and augmented reality is happening in the NIDILRR grantee community. Explore current and completed projects that are on the forefront of this technology in the NIDILRR Program Database on the NARIC website.

To Learn More About this Project

Russo-Ponsaran, N., McKown, C., Johnson, J., Russo, J., Crossman, J., and Reife, I. (2018) Virtual Environment for Social Processing: Assessing children with and without autism spectrum disorders. Autism Research, 11(1), 305-317. This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J79594.

The researchers continue to develop and test VESIP in partnership with schools across the US. Partner schools are given access to the assessment tool at no cost, with instruction and technical support, to administer VESIP to typically developing students in grades 3-7. To learn more about this phase of the project and how to participate, contact Principal Investigator, Nicole Russo-Ponsaran, PhD (nicole_russo@rush.edu, 847-763-7927) or Study Coordinator, Irene Wu, MS (irene_wu@rush.edu, 847-763-7988) for more information.

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