People on the autism spectrum often struggle to interpret facial cues, partially because they are unable to recognize how eye gaze direction is used to predict the actions and intentions of others. This can have huge implications for understanding behavior, language learning, and social interaction.
A Penn State study is developing a targeted intervention method using game technology designed to improve sensitivity to eye gaze cues, which could treat core symptoms of autism and help improve social skills.
The work appears in JCPP Advances, the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Advances, published under the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
The intervention, Social Games for Autistic Adolescents (SAGA), has been in development since 2013, when Suzy Scherf, associate professor of psychology and Social Science Research Institute co-funded faculty member, and her team were awarded a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) grant. “We wanted to develop a computer game intervention to improve sensitivity to eye gaze cues for individuals on the autism spectrum,” she said.
In 2015, the work was featured on the Big Ten Network’s LiveBig spotlight segment shown during football and basketball games. Jason Griffin, doctoral candidate in the department of psychology who works in the Laboratory of Developmental Neuroscience directed by Scherf, took feedback from participants who played SAGA during the filming of the segment to further refine the game.
During game play, participants progress through a narrative storyline and interact with animated characters using a range of nonverbal social cues, including eye gaze, to guide goal-directed behavior and solve problems in the game.
“We built a narrative about being a pet detective, and we told participants that they had to find the lost pet,” said Griffin. “While they are progressing through the game, they are learning how to respond to the nonverbal social cues from the humanoid figures that feature slightly enlarged heads and eyes.”
Scherf said the game strategy is a novel approach in this type of intervention, because skill learning is separate from the story line in the game. “Participants get to make their own choices in the game narrative, while the game technology automatically calibrates to their performance to keep them engaged and learning. This means that participants spend hours engaged in the eye gaze task, which would be very hard to get them to do otherwise.”
According to Scherf the game is a product of a Penn State cross-disciplinary collaboration, as a team of undergraduate and graduate visual arts students worked with the lab programmer to design game graphics.