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'Baldi' Helps Kids With Autism

Virtual Talking Head Teaches Autistic Children Language Skills


For autistic children who become easily frustrated, this can be a big plus. The virtual tutor is also available 24/7 and has endless patience. Part of what makes him appealing to autistic kids is that he never gets frustrated with them. He's predictable.

"Children with autism are very uncomfortable with unpredictability," says Justine Cassell, PhD, a researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who works on a different virtual reality program that teaches social skills to autistic kids.

Some parents feel funny about kids learning with a virtual person, but Cassell says there's no harm in it. "I think we should be comfortable with virtual reality," she says.

Although virtual reality has been studied with autistic children extensively, most programs haven't left the laboratory. Baldi, however, is available to the public. Schools and families can purchase the software to use at home or in the classroom from Massaro's private company, Animated Speech Corp.

Massaro says he tries to keep up with users as part of ongoing evaluation of the technology, and he stresses that it is experimental.

James Glass, PhD, a language researcher at MIT, says that this kind of technology is perfected by dissemination as well as by controlled study. "You need to get it out there to see how people will really use it," he says.

Massaro is also testing Baldi as a tool for teaching people with other kinds of language challenges, such as impaired hearing, and for teaching vocabulary to children with normal abilities. Another use is foreign language learning. The software can be programmed to speak any language.

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