Rebuilding social schemas


Recently, there has been a breakthrough in Autism research through computer games. This new development helps create a new schema for social interactions using a computer simulation. The computer game puts the autistic individual into the role of a computer character. The character encounters people in situations including dates, new neighbors, and interviews. In each of these circumstances the character needs to react appropriately. The distinct facial features of the other characters in the simulation make it easier for the autistic participant to think through an appropriate response based on how the other person presents his or herself. This in turn develops a script of how to act in social settings. Without support children with ASD are not able to properly form scripts, schemas for events. With this newly developed schema the child is then able to develop a script of how to react in certain situations as well as the chance to adhere to social norms. The program gives the player time to respond in a safe and inviting environment with many different encounters that facilitate the use of imperative social skills.
This new program is facilitated through the use of EEG’s and fMRI’s to show researchers which regions of the brain are activated during social interactions. As it turns out, tests have shown that the neural system is very malleable, showing regions of the brain associated with social cognition “light up.” The tests, in turn, show researchers what will be most useful for the simulations and what they can use in a specific social setting to help autistic individuals develop an updated script for their new social schema. Thus it facilitates individuals to feel more successful and comfortable in social situations. The virtual environment provides research centers such as BrainHealth researchers the opportunity to measure activation in the brain that leads to further developments in the computer simulation. The brain has shown major improvements with virtual training over time. Young adults with autism showed increased activation in brain regions associated with social understating. The results also show that there were more connections forming between brain regions needed to exchange information during social interactions.
Social schemas, developed in childhood are weak and even lacking in children with autism. They do not have knowledge relating to facial features and how to read them when interacting with their peers. Normally one has a script of what takes place in social settings such as walking up to a peer and immediately reading their facial features in order to predict what type of mood they may be in. Knowing this information, a conversation can be started based off of facial features as well as social cues. It is as if the schema is being recreated in order to help autistic children react properly in social settings. The ultimate goal of the computer simulation is to make social scripts more fluid with peers, constructing them as second nature.
For many years psychologists have taken an interest in children with Autism and why they react so differently in social situations. Studies show that there are insufficient pathways for transmitting information between the frontal and posterior regions of the brain. With insufficient connections in the brain comes the inability to communicate in a conscientious way. This creates communication problems, that without a standard representation of socializing impedes on everyday living. By definition, Autism spectrum disorder is a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. These issues cause significant impairment in social, occupational and other areas of functioning. Psychologists are trying to find ways to train the brain in order to make adjustments so that autistic individuals can communicate effectively with their peers and community, without worry and insecurity. For it is believed that people must have an understanding of social skills to facilitate healthy relationships with others in any environment to become successful individuals.

4 thoughts on “Rebuilding social schemas

  1. Alyssa

    I think the computer simulation for autistic individuals is a brilliant idea. Most often, those with Autism are socially isolated due to their inability to understand certain socially normative schema scripts. Because of this social isolation, I do think it partially explains why those who are autistic are unable to grow their social skills. If they aren’t able to practice, then they couldn’t ever fully develop those skills. I also thought it was interesting to find that there was insufficient pathways, in children with Autism, from the front to the back of the brain, which in hindsight makes sense. If they aren’t able to transmit certain information to the appropriate parts of the brain, then they won’t be able to react as quickly or at all as another individual without Autism might.

    As every other mental/brain disorder expert will tell you, and as you have pointed out, that supporting individuals suffering helps substantially to aiding their recovery. With a better understanding about Autism and what causes it, I think that there is hope for the future and treating autistic individuals with the respect they deserve.

  2. Shawn

    I agree with Alyssa, this is fantastic! Finding a way to help children set up these schemas in a safe environment where there isn’t the possibility of rejection is amazing. I know you said this was new, is there any indication of how long it will take for them to get this out into the public? Great topic!

  3. gord0n

    It will be exciting to see the research associated with effectiveness of this program. It seems like a good idea, but it also could have some major drawbacks that we are unaware of. These interactions, though they may be similar to real life encounters, could have interesting effects on the thought process involved with recognizing people and understanding real life consequences associated with learning how to interact. It definitely seems like a good idea, and given the technology, there seems to be tons of room for expansion and reinvention. We have also seen research showing the positive remedies of virtual reality in PTSD, depression, and some illnesses.

  4. kharner

    Thank you for writing about this. I found it very interesting and important. It is amazing when technology is used for the common good like helping with mental health. Maybe it could help people with social anxiety as well? I see this having a lot of potential.

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