Autism & Interaction

Boy watching Thomas the Train

It's hard to articulate the pain of a parent whose child has autism — confronting the impaired interaction and communication skills their children face.

David Work (TPR'04), an alumnus of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, is one of those parents.

Work recently returned to his alma mater hoping to find answers. He attended a panel discussion that officially launched the university's new strategic initiative, based around Brain, Mind & Learning.

As part of this initiative, researchers from across disciplines are working to further understand, autism, dyslexia, and numerous other brain behaviors.

"It's fascinating to listen to these experts talk about their work," he said. "My wife and I are always looking for ways to challenge our son, Zachary, to open his mind."

Work explained that Zachary can watch an entire episode of Thomas the Train, then go and pick up his toy engines and re-enact everything he just saw.

But when it comes to interacting and communicating with him, the family hits a wall.

Professor Justine Cassell's research gives him hope.

The director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) in CMU's School of Computer Science, Cassell uses machines to understand human behavior.

Her purpose is to support those skills that are most important to us.

"In my research with autism, for example, we compare one child with autism playing with somebody he knows from school to that same child playing with a virtual child we've built," said Cassell.

She explained, "[The virtual child is] an artificially intelligent system with the knowledge of how to tell and respond to stories — a system that was built with the goal of scaffolding or supporting the social interaction aspect of storytelling."

Why is this important?

"Learning takes place in part through collaboration with one's friends," said Cassell. "But for a child with autism — who may be able to speak but perhaps can't collaborate, can't engage in social interaction — it's not just loneliness that's a danger, but much of their education."

She continued, "So the question we want to ask is, how can we help that child learn those social skills so he or she can acquire a sense of other people and the joys that other people bring us, and also the cognitive benefits that come from education."

Cassell hopes that one day her research will help families like Work's.

She hopes to help children like Zachary build social interactions that bolster their cognitive and emotional development — and that her research also provides relief to the parents coping with these challenges.

Related Links: Brain & Behavior | HCII | Tepper School

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