A Virtual Conversational Agent for Teens with Autism: Experimental Results and Design Lessons

by   Mohammad Rafayet Ali, et al.

We present the design of an online social skills development interface for teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who often lack access to social skills training. The interface is intended to enable private conversation practice anywhere, anytime using a browser. Users converse informally with an on-screen persona, receiving feedback on nonverbal cues in real-time, and summary feedback. The prototype was developed in consultation with an expert UX designer, two psychologists, and a pediatrician. Using the data from 47 individuals, feedback and dialogue generation were automated using the hidden Markov model and a schema-driven dialogue manager capable of handling multi-topic conversations. We conducted a study with nine high-functioning ASD teenagers, and through thematic analysis of post-experiment interviews, identified several key design considerations, notably: 1) Users should be fully briefed at the outset about the purpose and limitations of the system, to avoid unrealistic expectations. 2) An interface should incorporate positive acknowledgment of behavior change. 3) Realistic appearance of a virtual agent and responsiveness are important in engaging users. 4) Conversation personalization, for instance in prompting laconic users for more input and reciprocal questions, would help the teenagers engage for longer terms and increase the system's utility.


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