This is the mini-site for Maggi’s PhD project, which investigated the influence of digital technologies on social play and interaction in autistic children.
This project is looking at the influence of digital technologies on social play in children with autism.
There’s an ongoing debate on whether technology has changed the way that we interact with others. Arguably, technology provides many more opportunities for us to engage with other people, but at the same time there’s a concern that technology decreases the quality of our interactions, especially for developing children. For children with autism, who already have difficulty in social skills, there is a concern that technology reduces the opportunity for learning social skills which are important later in life.
On the other hand, technology might have the opposite effect for autistic children. Technology might “take the edge off” face2face interactions, and reduce the social and sensory pressure of social environments. A handful of studies have shown that children with autism more readily converse and interact with others and engage in social play whilst using technology, compared to analogue counterparts.
This project will look at interactions around digital technologies in more detail in children with autism. I will explore what types of interactions are afforded and influenced by technology, and compare interaction whilst playing digital and non-digital games and activities.
Background and aims
There are many technologies available to autistic children, as well as families and services, but there’s not a lot known about how autistic children actually use technology. This study aimed to explore how technology is currently used in schools to support autistic children, in order to make sure that the rest of the studies within this PhD were relevant to current practices.
I designed and hosted a survey which asked educators about the technology they used in their classrooms to support autistic children. I asked about what types of technology they use, the purpose of technology use (e.g. communication, learning, socialising), and their thoughts and at titudes towards technology in the classroom.I also conducted two focus groups in specialist schools for children with autism, and asked about technology’s influence on social behaviour in the classroom.
- Technology is widely used to support autistic children in education settings, and practitioners generally have positive attitudes about using technology
- Practitioners were generally not concerned about children ‘getting stuck on technology’ or technology having a negative impact on social interaction
- Technologies can actually support social interaction in a number of ways, according to practitioners. These include developing friendships through shared interests, and promoting sharing and turn-taking while children use technology.
What did we do?
This design-based observational study looked at interactions and play in children with autism whilst using different types of technology. We think that different technologies (e.g. screen-based or screenless) have different opportunities for interaction, and we wanted to explore this. We went into a class at Prospect Bank School and observed autistic children (who also had learning disabilities) over multiple sessions playing with new technologies (see below).
What technologies did we pick?
We also brought Osmo. Osmo is a tangible system, meaning it is a blend of physical and digital, and creates an augmented reality space from an iPad’s camera. Basically, it allows children to play with both physical objects (e.g. blocks, letter pieces) and an on-screen game. We thought the blend of physical and digital would be interesting to explore.
Finally, Code-A-Pillar is a children’s robot toy which aims to teach children how to code. Code-A-Pillar lets children build their own caterpillar however they choose, with whatever chain they want, and also features music and lights. Code-A-Pillar has no screen but has a digital component which we thought would be interesting to compare to other screen and mixed-base technologies.
What does design-based mean?
Design-based research is a method which combines academic and theoretical insight with knowledge from practitioners and stakeholders, to build a shared understanding of how a specific behaviour or outcome can be best supported. In this case, we used the knowledge of the practitioners, as well as their feedback, to attempt to create the ‘optimal’ environment for children to play together using new digital technologies. We allowed children to pick different technologies to play with, and also changed the classroom environment, such as moving the desks and chairs around, and encouraging practitioners to be more involved in the children’s play.
- Different technologies can support different types of interaction. For instance, children more readily engaged with adults when using new technologies, such as tangibles, and more readily engaged with peers when using familiar technologies
- The screen-based technologies actually promoted ‘the most’ social play and interaction, but only just (when considering that lots of social interaction also happened while using Osmo and Code-A-Pillar)
Following on from our previous study, we’re now going to compare children’s social interactions whilst they play with digital and non-digital toys. We are going to see if there is a specific ‘digital effect’ on children’s interactions, and whether technology is really detrimental to social play and social opportunities!
What are we doing?
Similar to last time, we’re going to be video-recording more autistic children playing with different toys. Rather than comparing different technologies, this time we’re going to be comparing digital and non-digital toys. Children will have the chance to play in pairs with both the digital and non-digital toys in different sessions.
Our digital toy is the much-loved Code-A-Pillar! Code-A-Pillar is a robotic, musical construction toy designed to teach children how to code. Whilst it might not look so digital from the picture, Code-A-Pillar lights up, plays music, and moves around on his own during play!
Our non-digital toy is the BRIO magnetic train. This toy is similar to Code-A-Pillar in the sense that it’s colourful, constructable, and moveable, but just doesn’t have all the music, bells and whistles that Code-A-Pillar does.
- Most of the participants engaged in more social play and interaction when using the digital toy, Code-A-Pillar, compared to the non-digital toy, the BRIO train
- In both conditions, children engaged in more social play when only one toy was present, i.e. when social interaction was ‘encouraged’
I have a background in psychology and research methods. My past research projects have been on emotion recognition, sensory sensitivities, psychophysics and visual perception. I’m now focusing on interaction, play, and technology.
Prior to starting my PhD, I worked as a support worker and volunteer for adults and children with neurodevelopmental conditions, across home, school, and community settings.
- Laurie, M. H. (2019). Parental attitudes to technology use. Encyclopaedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Volkmar, F. (eds). [entry]
- Laurie, M. H., Manches, A. & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2019). Design implications from Cognitive Event Analysis: A case study of digitally mediated interaction in autistic children. Proceedings of the 18th conference of Interaction Design for Children, ACM SIGCHI. [paper, poster]
- Laurie, M. H., Warreyn, P., Uriarte, B. V., Boonen, C. & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2018). An international survey of parental attitudes to technology use by their autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-018-3798-0 [open-access article] [dart project page]
- Laurie, M. H. & Border, P. (2020). Autism. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology POSTnote #612 [open-access article]
- Laurie, M. H., Manches, A. & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2019). An individual comparison of social play whilst au. Stoke-on-Trent, UK. September 2019. [slides]
- Laurie, M. H. (2018). ‘Screen time’ and child development. Children and Young People in the Digital Age conference by Scottish Child Law Centre. Edinburgh, UK. November 2018.
- Laurie, M. H. (2018). Autism, social opportunities, and technology. Child and Adolescent Higher Trainees National Academic Program. Perth, UK. October 2018.
- Laurie, M. H., Manches, A. & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2019). A comparison of different technological interfaces and activities on autistic children’s social play with peers. International Society for Autism Research, Montreal, Canada, 1-4 May. [PDF]
- Laurie, M. H., Manches, A. & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2018). Using design-based methods with autism practitioners to enable technology-mediated social play in autistic children. Scottish Autism 50th Anniversary Conference, Glasgow, 8-9 Nov. [PDF]
- Laurie, M. H., Manches, A. & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2018). Fostering real-world interaction in autistic pupils with digital technology: Design considerations from practitioners in special education. International Society for Autism Research, Rotterdam, 9-13 May. [PDF]
- Laurie, M. H., Manches, A. & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2017) Education practitioners’ attitudes and experiences of technology use with autistic children. British Psychological Society: Psychology of Education Annual Conference, Edinburgh, 27-28 October [PDF]