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Fostering Prosocial Behaviors in Children with Autism through Mixed Reality

Fostering Prosocial Behaviors in Children with Autism through Mixed Reality
Developing and evaluating a playful full-body interactive Mixed Reality system to promote prosocial behaviors in children with and without autism spectrum condition.

The project aims to develop a full-body interactive Mixed Reality experience that has two levels designed for children. The first level aims to foster Interpersonal Entrainment (IPE) to promote prosocial behaviors (PB) in children, especially children with autism spectrum condition (ASC) that can lead them to have better social skills such as social initiation in different social situations. Additionally, the second level will be used to evaluate the acquired level of PB of children after experiencing the first level. These levels will be developed within our established MR framework, which has undergone a decade of development, ensuring control, flexibility, and ecological validity.

Traditional therapy strategies for children with autism often involve the presence of a therapist or psychologist as a mediator, which can impact the authenticity of children's behaviors. Our system acts as a non-human mediator, eliminating this interference and allowing therapists to observe and analyze the situation from an external standpoint. Moreover, the system provides a consistent reference point for the children, reducing anxiety associated with human unpredictability and complexity. It enables social interaction between children without the need for invasive technology such as headsets, allowing them to naturally practice non-verbal communication, body language, facial expressions, and social distancing. The system also creates an ecologically valid and interactive environment reminiscent of a public park or school playground, offering engaging situations that promote socialization but not forcing the children to put all their effort to start socializing.

Interpersonal entrainment (IPE) is a key concept in our research, involving the coordination of behaviors in sync with others in time and space. Although IPE and its relationship with social skills have been explored in various groups, limited studies have focused on IPE in children with autism. Given the social communication and interaction difficulties experienced by individuals with autism, achieving effective IPE can greatly enhance their social skills in diverse situations. This, in turn, contributes to their integration into society and promotes a better understanding of autism at a broader societal level.

Our research project benefits from collaboration with esteemed psychologists from Edge Hill University (UK), Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, and the Multisensory Research Group (CBC-DTIC). These collaborations will aid in refining the definitions of IPE and related variables. By gaining a deeper understanding of IPE, we can proceed with the final design and development of the two experiences: one to foster IPE and the other to evaluate the progress made by children. We have engaged an experienced Unity developer to assist in the development of these experiences within the Unity platform. Furthermore, collaboration with the Digital Arts and Interaction |DigiDoc group from the Department of Communication will enhance the design of the interactive narrative, while the Multisensory Research Group will contribute expertise in psychology, autism, and embodied cognition. Lastly, our collaboration with the UnimTEA unit of Hospital Sant Joan de Déu strengthens our connection to the local community of children with autism.

Recognizing the challenges encountered in previous research involving children with autism, we acknowledge the difficulty of bringing participants to our laboratory. To address this, we will develop a compact, lightweight, and portable system that can be easily transported to locations where potential participants can be found for this study, including special education centers, schools, associations, hospitals, and more. This step is crucial not only for the successful implementation of the project but also for future accessibility and broader utilization of the system by the public.

Principal researchers

Narcís Parés


Beste Ercan
Olga Galí
Magdalena Matyjek
Karunya Srinivasan
Roc Parés
Edge Hill University: Liam Cross, Gray Atherton
Hospital Sant Joan de Déu: María Ángeles Mairena

The project will be supported by the PhD Fellowship program at the Department of Information and Communication Technologies at UPF.