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Human Time or Screen Time? Which helps Autistic children learn communication skills?

Human Time or Screen Time

© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Over the years many people have asked us about computer games that are good for teaching social skills. Even today, I’m still not sure how to answer this question. Like many parents and other professionals in my field, I’m aware that our students’ attention is much more captivated by the high-interest designs and images that appear on a screen (after all, they’re designed to capture attention). But at the same time I keep wondering: these are kids with social communication and social interaction challenges. It just seems a reach to offer them learning options that are one step removed from the very social situations they struggle within. Do we do our students justice when we give them – even encourage them - to relate to virtual images or characters in the supposedly same manner and mode that they relate to humans in face-to-face interaction? Or is there meaningful real-world place for teaching social interaction via the screen? 

Let’s start with a 2014 journal article I read that addressed some of these issues directly; it’s a good place to consider some aspects of the discussion: 

“Are Children with Autism More Responsive to Animated Characters? A Study of Interactions with Humans and Human Controlled Avatars” by Carter, Williams, Hodgins & Lehman.  

While the research was limited in sample size (12 children with autism ages 4-8 who had emerging to solid language skills), their data results are intriguing and may continue to encourage us to explore ways in which we develop treatment options and delivery pathways for our children and their families. 

The study sought to compare the responsiveness of children with autism to computer-generated or animated characters versus their responsiveness to humans. Researchers provided a relational script to Autistic students and tracked whether students elicited similar or different verbal and gestural responses to the script. 

As part of the study, children were encouraged to interact directly with:

  1. A skilled human therapist (e.g., speech language pathologist)
  2. A human-controlled interactive avatar in a theme park
  3. A human actor speaking like the avatar (untrained to facilitate interactions with Autistic students)
  4. Cartoon videos in which characters sought social responses

Each of the four modes was structured to encourage the students to elicit the same number of verbal and gestural responses from each of the students. 

The trained therapist was a newcomer to the children. All of the children were familiar with the cartoon videos used and each had been in speech therapy and/or ABA treatment at the time of the study. 

Key Questions and Results

The first question the researchers explored related to how attentive the children were in each of the four different modes. The researchers acknowledged that it has been stated in many journal articles and elsewhere that people believe Autistic students prefer to attend and relate to non-human characters. 

Question 1: Are Autistic children more attentive to non-human characters?

Results showed that attention was the same across the four modes. There was no difference in students’ abilities to attend across the four conditions. This suggests that animation does not necessarily increase a child with autism’s ability to attend to information. This is important to note as it means the results outlined below were not due to differing levels of social attention to the human versus the avatar or the cartoon characters.  

Question 2. Which of the four interactive modes solicited the most verbal and gestural responses from each child? 

Results: An experienced human (therapist) elicited superior rate of responses on gestural and verbal measures when compared to the human-controlled interactive avatar and the human actor. 

When comparing the interactive avatar to the human actor, they found that the interactive avatar elicited more responses. 

The poorest response by the children in the study was to the cartoon characters.  

The article is an interesting read for parents and professionals who wrestle with understanding the most efficient and satisfying/motivating ways to help our children develop social language and relationship skills. 

The research study included a far deeper discussion than is offered here, but the general results of this study encourage us to consider that:

  • Trained treatment professionals may provide the most effective treatment results 
  • Autistic children do not appear to have superior attention to characters presented via technology 
  • Trained professionals may be more effective in scaffolding the presentation of information and making on-the-spot adjustments to encourage children to respond in a gradually more complex manner 
  • When using any mode of engagement (human, avatar, or cartoon) an important component is being able to encourage a response, wait for actual responses from the child, and then modify or adapt further interactions based on how a child responds.

In summary, as our children have more time and opportunities to learn through  technology and programs provided on computer, tablet, or cell phone screens, be aware that this may not be providing them with more opportunities to learn communication skills! 


Carter, EJ., Williams, DL., Hodgins, JK. & Lehman, JF. (2014). Are children with autism more responsive to animated characters? A study of interactions with humans and human controlled avatars. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Volume 44, pages 2475-2485. 

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