The global pandemic has driven the world of psychology and education to technology-based interventions, however, some experts saw enormous potential in technology long before Covid. Dr. Renae Beaumont, an assistant professor of psychology and clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medicine New York Presbyterian hospital has worked in the autism and technology space for over a decade. She sat down with Dr. Ofer Golan to discuss her work with a video gaming-based intervention called the Secret Agent Society program.
The Secret Agent Society program teaches kids with autism how to understand emotions in themselves and others and how to express their emotions in more effective ways. The program then uses that foundation of emotion recognition and emotion management to teach them skills to connect socially with others. “For people on the spectrum, understanding emotions in themselves and others, and being able to express those emotions in effective ways, is really a foundation. And then being able to develop and apply social interaction skills when they need them and when they choose to use them,” Dr. Beaumont explains.
In the game, children are welcomed into the international Secret Agent Society headquarters, and told they have to go through multiple levels of training in order to graduate as “special agents”. As special agents, they have to be able to read what’s going on with people around them and be able to accurately interpret social situations. The theming naturally lends itself to the development of social and emotional skills in a fun, engaging way. The platform also includes a group modality, the “society”, that gives kids a way to practice the skills they’re learning in real time and get input, coaching, and incidental teaching to scaffold their skill development before they put the skills in action at home and in school.
Dr. Beaumont finds that parents, especially of autistic children, are often hesitant about using technology, fearing that it will deter their children from interpersonal interaction rather than encourage it. She recommends that they look at it differently. “Rather than trying to completely discourage technology, we can help channel that interest and that fascination in a way that’s helping them rather than harming them,” she says. Parents are also actively involved in the game and participate in the entire curriculum, learning ways to deal with situations in which their child is distressed or overwhelmed. “Parents tell me it was super helpful in boosting their skills and confidence and giving them a common language with their children, a way to talk about these concepts,” Beaumont says. “After using the game, they feel that, okay, I know what to do here. I know how to help my child use these skills so they can calm down and move forward rather than get stuck and feel overwhelmed.”
She sees enormous potential in the future, including enabling kids to customize their game avatars and using technology as more than a teaching tool. “When I first developed this, I think it was like 15 years ago now, there wasn’t the same potential for technology to encourage and track skill usage as there is now. Now technology can prompt them to use these skills in real time, at the moment when they need to, and then using gamification strategies to encourage those behaviors and motivate them,” she concludes.
EmotiPlay is a research-based tool that helps therapists, teachers, and parents teach children with autism to understand emotion, a life skill that impacts almost every element of their lives.