At the most recent annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Sam was introduced.
Sam is the creation of a team of researchers at the Center for Technology and Social Behavior, a part of Northwestern University. The research team calls him a “virtual peer,” developed to explore social interactions with autistic children.
Sam is a programmable, life-size, animated “child” that is capable of relating to autistic children on several levels of proficiency and function. Researchers are finding that, as a child becomes more comfortable “playing” with Sam, they gain social skills that transfer to all their social interactions, even those outside the research center.
High-functioning autistic children are often quite vocal, showing exceptional eloquence when speaking of a favored subject, be it trains, volcanoes, or cows. Their social skills, those needed to seek and maintain pleasant relationships with the people in their environment, are often lacking, however. This social inhibition can hinder advancement in other areas.
The Northwestern research team has worked thus far with Sam and six high-functioning autistic children ranging in age from 7 to 11. The children visit Sam in a safe, inviting environment where researchers are monitoring and recording the child’s interactions with Sam.
Their behaviors with Sam are then compared to similar interaction with a real child. The research is already indicating that the children are exhibiting a higher level of social skills when working with Sam and these same skills are being carried over into the activities with the real child.
The research team says pairing autistic children with a technological tool like Sam is an ideal situation. As a rule, autistic children seem to be genuinely fascinated by technology.