Dallas center uses avatars in virtual world to help autistic children

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by SHELLY SLATER

Bio | Email | Follow: @wfaashelly

WFAA

Posted on February 25, 2011 at 1:24 AM

Updated Friday, Feb 25 at 10:01 AM

DALLAS - Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability. It affects around one in 500 kids.

Children who have autism don't understand many of life's basics, like how to interact or what is socially acceptable.

The Center for BrainHealth in Dallas has taken a sci-fi approach to helping autistic children cope socially by bringing them into a virtual world where they actually have their own avatars.

The virtual world has become a place for Clark Thurston, who has Asperger's syndrome, to learn how to socially interact. Asperger is a form of autism.

Thurston demonstrated the program by taking a seat and joining his therapist in the virtual world.

"They're called avatars," said Dan Krawczyk, a researcher. "When you're driving an avatar, you're in virtual space, riding one of these characters as yourself."

"Four of five sessions in here is worth about two or three years of real world training," Thurston said.

From coffee shop get togethers to job interviews, Thurston virtually practices social situations. Like most autistic children, he doesn't understand emotions and facial expressions.

"It's not just recognizing a face," Krawczyk said. "It's recognizing emotion ... So, a lot of brain areas have to talk to each other and coordinate, and some of these connections are not as strong as they should be."

"He got bullied a lot so he carried around a lot of pain," said Lori Imel, Thurston's mother.

"We live in this highly social world and our society puts more emphasis on knowing somebody than work or brain power," Thurston said. "So, if you're deficient in the one thing our society has deemed the most important attribute, then you're in real trouble."

To turn things around, he is training at the center for eight weeks. The Center for BrainHealth is creating new technology that allows Thurston to control his Avatar's facial expressions down to the raising of an eyebrow.

In order to get that facial reaction, first they take a picture of the face to use as a baseline. The avatar will do everything the person does from turning their head right to left to looking surprised.

Using Thurston's expressions, researchers will study, track and hand tailor his training.

"The face is the gateway to social interaction," Krawczyk said.

In time, the technology will be remote, allowing anyone, anywhere to participate with researchers.

"I never even dared to hope that it would be this good," Imel said.

Thurston's mother said the progress is so great, people are finally getting to see her son for who he is and not for his disability.  

The Center for BrainHealth works with autistic kids as young as seven and all the way through the mid-20s. If you think you would be a good research candidate, go to brainhealth.utdallas.edu.

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