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a group of children is being led by an autism professional

Social learning during social distancing

During the COVID-19 pandemic, families around the world are looking for ways to help further their children’s education. This process can be especially stressful for families with children with autism who might be missing vital services. Eliminating their access to schools, teachers and other children could further perpetuate already existing social isolation. Thompson Center autism experts say keeping children with autism connected and engaged is particularly important.

In recent years, special education researchers at the University of Missouri have developed a social competence intervention (SCI) curriculum that has proven through published studies to improve the social skills of children with autism and other special needs. Dr. Janine Stichter, a professor of special education in the MU College of Education, first developed the program when she was an associate director at the MU Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

“At the time, there was no organized comprehensive curriculum for children with social deficits,” Stichter said. “With work from a number of outstanding graduate students and faculty, we were able to develop the SCI and prove that it works in helping teach vital social skills that do not come naturally to children with autism.”

The next challenge was making this program accessible to all children, especially those in rural and urban environments that do not have regular access to trained special educators. Dr. James Laffey, a professor emeritus in the MU School of Information Science & Learning Technologies, helped Stichter adapt the program to a virtual environment so children anywhere in the world could participate.

The virtual curriculum, called iSocial, features children in small groups of 4-6 fellow peers. The curriculum asks the children to complete tasks in groups, teaching them the skills needed to work and communicate with others along the way.

 “The virtual world affords us perks that can’t be achieved in person,” Stichter said. “Remarkably, we have found that children with autism show the same tendencies and personalities in a virtual environment as they do in real life. A fidgety kid in a chair is a fidgety avatar online. For example, a child who tends to wander physically, he will also tend to wander virtually, clicking on items and activities that are not part of the program. In our program, his avatar can be locked in a certain space and coded to guide him, teach him systematically and set him up for success.”

After years of development, the program is currently available for families to participate in from home. Stichter says this is a great way for children to continue learning valuable social skills even during social distancing.

“The program was designed to work even during these times when we can’t meet each other face-to-face,” Stichter said. “Because it is entirely virtual, children with autism can still work with and learn from their peers and instructors from their own home.” The company Nascent purchased the licensing rights for the MU-developed iSocial program in 2017 and have been implementing it ever since. iSocial currently is offering virtual sessions of the program during the pandemic. For more information about iSocial, visit: https://www.isocl.net/ or contact Bob Etzel at: 785-221-4436 or betzel@isocl.net.