Skip Navigation
March 2011

From the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER)

The iSocial Project Develops 3-D Virtual Learning Environments for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders

A common characteristic of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is impairment in social interaction skills. The iSocial project, funded by the National Center for Special Education Research, is developing three-dimensional virtual learning environments for youth with ASD to help these young learners develop social competencies that will enable them to participate more easily and fully in school activities and in other settings. iSocial is an adaptation of a school-based curriculum that focuses on improving emotion recognition, theory of mind (i.e., the ability to understand the thoughts, intentions, and feelings of others), and executive functioning (i.e., cognitive abilities necessary for regulation and control of goal-directed behavior). In order to develop social competencies in a virtual learning environment, iSocial provides support to encourage prosocial behavior while students participate in small-group online lesson activities. One of the innovations of the iSocial project has been to develop social scaffolds to help regulate and support self-regulation of online social behavior.

Lead iSocial researchers Jim Laffey and Janine Stichter, along with project director Matthew Schmidt, are working at overcoming the challenges of converting face-to-face curriculum activities to an approach that can be implemented with fidelity in a virtual world. The team of researchers and developers are using Open Wonderland, an open source development environment, to construct the virtual worlds and curriculum content. They are also using this tool to enable interaction between a trained online guide and a set of peers (youth with ASD using a computer within the same or different schools) during the small-group online activities.

The lessons in iSocial focus on such competencies as recognizing facial expressions, sharing ideas, turn taking in conversations, and problem solving. These lessons include modeling and structured practice, followed by more naturalistic activities in which the youth practice social skills in simulated settings with the guidance of a trainer who leads them through various scenarios. A simulated scenario, for example, might be for them to decide what to take from their sinking pirate ship in order to survive on a deserted island or for them to work together to build a restaurant. The trainer guides the youth online in social skills, such as communication and negotiation, needed to complete the tasks. Thus, an advantage over many other social skills interventions is that the lessons are embedded within activities in which youth are actually practicing the skills they are learning. A local educator-facilitator is nearby, but allows the student to work with minimal supervision. This educator-facilitator manages the youth's local experience, including coordinating times to access the technology, orienting the youth to the software, and extending the lessons learned in iSocial to the local school context.

The iSocial curriculum has five units of instruction—four (each with six lessons) of which have already been developed and tested with small samples of youth with ASD. These initial tests examine the usability and feasibility of the online lessons. The fifth unit will be completed and tested this summer and field tests are planned for Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 in middle schools in Missouri. Data from the usability studies of the first four units have shown the youth to be highly engaged in the online worlds and active participants in the instructional and social activities.

Screen shot of an iSocial user utilizing the program and the avatars she is interacting with

This screen shot represents the online guide's view of the world and avatars of the youth (her head shot does not actually appear in the world). The online guide is doing an introduction for the lesson the youth are about to undertake. The green box in the left-hand corner shows some of the tools the guide uses to manage the lesson such as timers for lesson activity and a counter for marbles (the rewards). The avatars are standing on their personal pods which can be locked or unlocked to help regulate movement in the world. After the introduction, the youth work together on a project, such as designing and building a restaurant based on their choices for themes and menus.

For more information on iSocial, including screenshots and videos to help communicate the student experience, visit the website at