Creating Exploratory Touch-screen Games that Include Novel and Surprising Aspects as Motivators of Communication for Children with Autism

Alyssa Alcorn, Judith Good, Helen Pain, Susan Fletcher-Watson

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


Background: Unpredictability and “lack of sameness” are frequently stressful for children with ASC. However, work with the ECHOES virtual environment suggests that novel and surprising aspects (i.e. discrepancies) can be experienced as interesting, positive motivators of communication when present in a technology alongside substantial sameness. ECHOES deliberately included novelty (e.g. new digital objects), however, intermittent software errors also caused unintentional surprises, such as the character making “mistakes” in an activity he had previously demonstrated correctly. Children were observed to frequently and spontaneously initiate to social partners about these discrepancies (Alcorn, Pain, & Good, 2013). Subsequent qualitative and quantitative analyses of child-ECHOES interactions, combined with “lessons learned” from school studies, have identified characteristics that may have allowed discrepancies to be perceived as motivating but still emotionally manageable. These have been formulated as six high-level principles intended to support transfer of “motivating but manageable” discrepancies to new designs: establishing and maintaining integrity of the environment and activities, ensuring flexibility and resolvability of child-system interactions, and offering wide variety of discrepancies at an appropriate frequency. These should pose ambiguous opportunities for communication, rather than demanding specific behaviours or communicative forms. Objectives: To reproduce the phenomenon of discrepancies as positive communicative motivators for young children with ASC, in a new interactive technology. Methods: Transfer lessons learned from ECHOES to the design of three new touch-screen games, guided by the high-level principles for incorporating discrepancies. Results: Games draw upon the original ECHOES “Magic Garden” setting, cause-and-effect play, and exploratory, non-competitive format (originally developed with extensive stakeholder input). One involves sorting apples by colour; two centre on growing flowers or vegetables by shaking a magic cloud. Each has a “baseline” and a “discrepant” version. The main source of novelty is the child initially encountering digital objects and forming expectations about their behaviours. After baseline versions are familiar, additional objects and properties are introduced in discrepant versions. Surprises include altered object appearances, sound effects, and timings between events. The character also makes occasional “mistakes” with his actions and utterances. These things are expected to interest children and pose opportunities for them to spontaneously initiate communication for a range of goals (e.g. share information or affect, ask question, request), and using any behaviours (e.g. speech, gestures, gaze). Conclusions: Three games were successfully developed, embodying principles thought to effectively motivate spontaneous communication using discrepant aspects. This process has highlighted that designing “motivating but manageable” games requires concurrently designing how they will be used. For example, the integrity principle determined the need for baseline versions which children should play multiple times in order to develop clear expectations―a pre-requisite for violating expectations later (i.e. surprises). Establishing sufficient “sameness” to counterbalance discrepancies will always partly rely on variables outside the game itself, including the physical environment, social partner actions, and the frequency and duration of game play. The principles must be realised collectively in the technology and its context. Preliminary results will soon be available from games testing with children, as the first step in gauging their success at motivating communications.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - May 2015
EventInternational Meeting for Autism Research - Salt Lake City, United States
Duration: 13 May 201516 May 2015


ConferenceInternational Meeting for Autism Research
CountryUnited States
CitySalt Lake City

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