We have created a new customizable, multi-user research-through-play platform designed to facilitate social skill development for children with ASD. Through the highly motivating, individualized play environment, children can progress at their own pace while practicing social skills. Early results suggest that SPRING’s novel multi-player environment elicits social interaction in a way that can engage learners with very different interests.
Practitioners have long explored using motivating, personalized reinforcement to achieve developmental goals for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (Koegel & Mentis, 1985; Vismara & Lyons, 2007). SPRING–Smart Platform for Research, Intervention, and Neurodevelopmental Growth– is a customizable, interactive, research-through-play platform, built to systematically probe the effects of these reinforcement modalities on learning and physiological regulation (Johnson & Picard, 2017). SPRING has shown promise in facilitating increased engagement and skill development for children with autism and other neuro-differences, but it has lacked multi-user functionality and built-in means to prompt social skills, such as joint attention, turn taking, and cooperative play–until now. Adding this functionality allows practitioners to customize the reinforcement and developmental challenge of each individual SPRING unit while simultaneously encouraging social engagement by linking the units over a virtual network.
Here, we present a Multi-SPRING system designed to
- Stimulate early social experiences, such as joint attention, turn taking, and cooperative play;
- Facilitate simultaneous play between individuals with different skill levels, such as typical and autistic peers or siblings, while providing personalized reinforcement tuned to each individual’s motivating interests;
- Reduce anxiety associated with unaided social interactions and extend engagement in a multi-person activity; and
- Passively capture time-synchronized, quantitative measures of users’ affective states via wearable physiological sensors and data of users’ play progressions via SPRING.
Each SPRING unit has a removable, modular center that can be adapted to the needs of an individual child by inserting different physical modules. An integrated smartphone and embedded LEDs allow user-selected customization of motivating reinforcement, such as favorite video clips, images, music, or colorful light displays. The smartphone also enables scaffolded difficulty levels within a single module so each child can be met with the “just right” challenge. Embedded digital sensors capture and store time-stamped data of a child’s interaction with SPRING. Paired with wearable physiological sensors, these data allow multimodal analysis of a child’s affective state and learning progression.
The new Multi-SPRING system links multiple SPRING units in realtime through a virtual private room, much like a chat room. This method enables social multiplayer interactions, such as turn taking and cooperative play, while continuously capturing activity data logs from every child for future study.