Take a walk down the hall of any typical middle or high school, and you will see the dynamic complexity of social interaction. Peers gather around lockers and classrooms looking to connect between classes. Conversations start about after-school activities, popular video games, and yes—relationships. Students feel a sense of inclusion, community, and social support as their brains produce little doses of dopamine that serve as a reward for being social, motivating kids to continue engaging socially.

For Aiden, a teenager who is trying to discover his social self, the story is a little different: “I don’t really put effort into making and keeping friends…but I do want to know how to show others that I am interested in getting to know them.” Like many other young people with high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, being social doesn’t feel natural for Aiden. Being part of a group takes quite a lot of skill and savvy. During one particularly difficult year in a traditional public school, Aiden’s parents noticed he began struggling academically, isolating himself, feeling less confident, and he was bullied. They elected to move Aiden to a private school that specializes in students on the autism spectrum with the goal to return to public high school in the future, once he had the skills and tools to be successful. “Many of the kids who go here say that they had really bad middle school years too, but I plan on going back to public high school when I can,” Aiden shared. “First, I need to understand what the teachers and other kids are thinking and feeling, so I know what to do.”

Aiden’s parents didn’t stop there. They sought extra-curricular activities to help him develop his social skills. They tried social skill groups and acting classes for teens on the spectrum, but those did not meet Aiden’s needs. Most classes took place in a group environment with kids who were typically lower functioning than their son and were learning skills not at an appropriate level for him. Then they came across a news story about research being conducted at the Center for BrainHealth® in Dallas that was now available to the public as a program called Charisma™ for Youth. Intriguingly, the training was delivered using a video game platform in a virtual world setting, and it was customized so Aiden would be able to practice social interactions at a level appropriate to him.

Charisma is a game-based, virtual platform to help individuals with autism manage social situations in the real world. Cognitive neuroscientists, clinicians, and game developers at the Center for BrainHealth’s Brain Performance Institute—part of The University of Texas at Dallas—have more than 10 years of research supporting the use of virtual learning environments to deliver social-cognitive strategies shown to improve emotion recognition, social-reasoning, and self-confidence in as few as five weeks. Facing difficult social situations can be intimidating. Receiving guidance and coaching from a clinician in real-time is empowering.

“After just 10 hours of training, we have seen Aiden consistently grow as he continues to use his social strategies,” said his mom, a special education teacher. “We have not had a single incident report from school since he went through Charisma™ for Youth.” Previously, they were getting weekly incident reports with all his teachers indicating Aiden was saying inappropriate things. Aiden’s mom credits Charisma’s virtual interface for this breakthrough. Social engagement felt much less intimidating in a virtual world, and it was a fun way to practice new situations. She added, “When kids feel less threatened and more relaxed, they’ll be more open to feedback and willing to dip their toes into the water without fear.” Indeed, Aiden boosted his perspective-taking score from 23 percent to 96 percent accuracy. “I met my goal, and now I can uncover what others are really thinking and feeling,” he said, and this in return helped him respond to others more appropriately.

These real-life results mirror research published in three different professional journals, illustrating the effectiveness of using virtual learning environments as a tool combined with social-cognitive strategies for youth on the autism spectrum. Improvements in emotion recognition, perspective-taking, and social communication are at the core of Charisma, and the main goal is always to help youth ages eight and older discover their social strengths and the strategies to achieve success. Recent data shows that when kids were asked to describe themselves using three words before and after the training, initially only 33 percent of the words were positive compared to 85 percent upon completion. When asked to describe his social self after the training, Aiden proudly stated, “Entertaining, friendly, and helpful.”

“Aiden really likes it and wants to do it again. It’s wonderful that the reports show growth, too,” concluded his mom. “This program is teaching more than social skills; it’s equipping kids like Aiden with life-long strategies to
be independent problem solvers and critical thinkers.”

To learn more about Charisma™ for Youth Virtual Social Learning and its related research, visit www.centerforbrainhealth.org/charisma.

Ways parents can help kids with autism build skills Research from the Center for BrainHealth® has shown that connecting through communication builds resiliency and social competence for youth well into young adulthood. Parents can help their kids build skills in various ways:

  • Have your child capture moments in creative ways, like taking photos during family time, sharing a favorite activity with you, or talking about his/her best memory of the day.
  • Look for moments to model and express empathy, especially in social situations requiring your child to take another’s perspective. Remember to ask, “What did you see or hear that made that person have big feelings?”
  • Use an emotion wheel to illustrate the intensity of an emotion as well as its name and what it looks like. Remember, socialization is all about nuance, and the more we train the brain to look for differences, the more accurate your child will be in recognizing how other people are feeling, building a strong foundation for social brain health.

By Maria JOHNSON, MA, CCC-SLP

Maria Johnson, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist by training and has specialized in social cognition for the past 18 years. She is passionate about working closely with schools for students with learning differences. As Director, Youth & Family Innovations at Center for BrainHealth®, she provides families across the country with access to the Center’s virtual social learning programs.

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Published on Autism Parenting Magazine Sep 27, 2019