ECHOES, a virtual learning environment developed by ESRC-funded researchers, has improved autistic children's engagement and communication, and changed teaching practice in several UK schools.

Impacts

  • ECHOES greatly helped children improve their social and communication skills, raising the long-term aspirations of both teachers and children.
  • The ECHOES project has changed the teaching practices of many of the schools, in particular Topcliffe school which teaches around 30 children with various levels of autism. As a result of the programme, the school is now trialling different technologies in the classroom, including robots.
  • Teachers adjusted the support that they gave children after observing them using ECHOES and demonstrate verbal abilities that they were previously not thought to have had.
  • Six further schools have shown interest in using ECHOES technologies in the near future.

"We watched children with autism playing with the images on the screen in ways in which none of the typically developing children had done. The normal curriculum that we were offering just wasn't allowing them to demonstrate these skills to us." (Sarah Quickendon, Spectrum Disorders Teacher, Topcliffe School)

About the research

Children with autism find it difficult to communicate with others and form relationships, making learning in a school environment quite challenging. However, ESRC-funded research is changing this by bringing technology into the classroom.

Studies show that children with autism often find computers and technology safe, motivating and engaging, so with this in mind researchers at the Institute of Education and Birmingham University developed ECHOES, a virtual learning game. Through ECHOES, children can play with virtual characters, explore their environment and manipulate objects by touching a large screen. Four schools across the UK trialled the software, and it was a great success, proving popular both with children with autism and typically developing children.

By recording the way in which children interacted with ECHOES, the researchers, led by Dr Kaska Porayska-Pomsta, could quantify how skilled they were at social interaction - by seeing whether they were willing to share attention with others, take turns, and initiate and respond to bids for interaction. The results were astounding; after just eight weeks, children with autism spectrum disorders improved their social communication skills so much that there were no longer any differences between children with autism and typically developing children. Teachers also reported that after using ECHOES these children were more willing to interact with others outside of the game.

After noticing how much more engaged and communicative children with autism were after using ECHOES, teachers at many of the schools have decided to expand the use of technology in the classroom.