Read Time: 2 minutes
You can teach a person to fish or you can use a fish to teach a person. That is what a team of special education researchers in the McKay School did when challenged with how to teach social interaction to children with autism.
Assistant professor Ryan Kellems led the team and found that children with autism interact easily with a live-animated fish, even though they struggle to communicate with people.
Children have conversations with an animated character—Marla the fish—controlled in real time by student researchers in an adjoining room. Marla's mouth movements and facial expressions are synchronized to the researcher's voice, and the teacher and child practice the principles of human interaction. Later each child practices with a live peer.
Bruna Gonçalves, soon to be a graduate student in special education, has been deeply involved in the project. Her interest in the field was inspired by her sister, who has cerebral palsy. Gonçalves often acts as the voice for Marla the fish and is always excited to watch the children make progress. Gonçalves saw one of the study's participants at her practicum and was delighted to see him starting conversations with children around him.
"It was incredible to see someone using what they had learned. I saw him generalize skills. I will always remember that," Gonçalves said.
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Photography by Bradley Slade