Theory of Mind Software for Autism and other Communication Disorders

Period of Performance: 07/01/2009 - 10/31/2011

$949K

Phase 2 SBIR

Recipient Firm

Laureate Learning Systems, Inc.
Winooski, VT 05404
Principal Investigator

Abstract

DESCRIPTION (provided by investigator): Full participation in the human social milieu requires that one be able to understand that other people have their own goals, intentions, and beliefs (which may or may not be correct) - and that these epistemic states govern people's behavior. This form of awareness has been called Theory of Mind (ToM). Unfortunately, the development of ToM is severely delayed or fails altogether in many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Delays in the development of ToM are also seen in oral deaf children from hearing families (DH) who are not exposed to adequate language input, and others with Specific Language Impairment (SLI). The prevalence of ToM deficits in these populations contributes to mounting evidence that language plays a critical role in ToM development, perhaps by providing an essential framework for comprehending language about epistemic states. In the proposed research we seek to develop and field-test a curriculum and intervention software for children with ASD, SLI, and DH children that can be used to help remediate language deficits that are reliably associated with poor performance on classic tests of ToM development. Progress toward this goal will at the least provide children with a basis for understanding the language about the mind, and it is predicted, will also aid in the actual development of ToM abilities in many children for whom these abilities may otherwise be severely delayed or out of reach. In Phase I the investigators and consultants outlined a curriculum for the full project, and specified, developed, and field-tested prototype software with children in each of the populations listed above. The children were able to use the software and evidence of learning was obtained. In Phase II the same group will collaborate on development and field-testing of the full curriculum. Efficacy data, comprising pre- and post measures of general language, syntax, ToM abilities, and narrative skills, will be collected with children in the three diagnostic categories indicated. PUBLIC HEALTH RELEVANCE Being able to understand that other people have their own goals, intentions, and beliefs (which may or may not be correct) - and that these epistemic states govern people's behavior - has been called Theory of Mind (ToM). Unfortunately, the development of ToM is severely delayed in many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as well as in oral deaf children who are not exposed to adequate language input and others with Specific Language Impairment. In the proposed research we will develop intervention software that will help to remediate language acquisition deficits that are reliably associated with poor performance on classic tests of ToM development. Progress toward this goal will provide an effective and efficient means of providing children with a basis for understanding language associated with epistemic states, and it is predicted, will also aid in the development of ToM abilities per se.