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McKay School Grad's Animated Autism Project

Bruna Goncalves, a student graduating with a bachelor’s degree in special education, found her passion for behavioral research through the love she has for her best friend and older sister, Barbara.

When Goncalves was just two years old, her family immigrated to the United States from São Paulo, Brazil. The family sacrificed their business and all they had to seek better treatment options for Barbara’s severe cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the ability to move and maintain balance and posture.

“We felt a sense of responsibility for Barbara throughout childhood and that, mixed with growing up in a Brazilian culture at home, made fitting in a challenge for us.” Goncalves said. “But we didn’t mind it because Barbara got the care she needed.”

Ryan Kellems, assistant professor in counseling psychology and special education, said Goncalves’ unique perspective enriched his research team.

As an undergraduate researcher, Goncalves and her colleagues used live animation to teach behavioral skills to children with autism. The ”live” part of the animation includes software that moves the animated avatar as researchers have real-time conversation and lessons with participants.

Participants would sit in front of a screen with the live-animated fish, Marla, while researchers controlled Marla in a separate room in which they could view the participants through a two-way mirror and respond by speaking into a microphone. The researchers’ goal was to teach children how to start a conversation, since it doesn’t always come naturally to children with autism.

At the beginning, participants would practice the five steps of how to start a conversation with Marla. The five steps are to look at the person and smile, stand about an arm’s length away, ask a question, use a nice voice and wait for a response. Marla would teach them a lesson in how to start a conversation with one of the researchers. Researchers eventually brought in same-aged peers and relatives to solidify the concepts.

Children with autism not only had high levels of engagement with Marla, but they also learned how to start a conversation with the people around them. Parents responded favorably to surveys, indicating that the live animation teaching method made a difference in their and their children’s lives.

Goncalves said she saw one of the study’s participants at her practicum and was delighted to see him starting conversations with the children around him.

“It was incredible to see someone using what they’d learned. I saw him generalize skills and I’ll always remember that.” Goncalves said.

Kellems said Goncalves wasn’t done with the research when the project was completed.

“Not only did she help design and conduct the research, but she also co-presented the findings with me at two different national conferences – a truly remarkable feat for an undergrad.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s in special education, Goncalves will begin graduate studies in special education at BYU. She hopes to bring the knowledge and skills she has gained in college to create special education programs in Brazil.

Watch the full video here: 

Writer: Alexa Reimschussel
Contact: Natalie Ipson