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The University of Southampton
Southampton Education School

Research project: Communication and Social Participation: Collaborative Technologies for Interaction And Learning (COSPATIAL)

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COSPATIAL is a 3-year (from February 2009) collaborative, technology-focused project exploring the use of innovative technologies for supporting social skills understanding for children on the autism spectrum as well as those who are typically developing. It is a €1.65m project funded by the European Commission through the FP7 research programme. The research team is multidisciplinary, comprising computer scientists, psychologists, design engineers, occupational therapists and educators, spanning 5 sites in 3 countries: the Universities of Southampton and Nottingham in the UK; the Foundation Bruno Kessler – a research institute based in Trento, Italy (the lead partner); and the Universities of Haifa and Bar-Ilan in Israel.

Poor social understanding and skills are defining diagnostic features of autism. A recent National Autistic Society survey in the UK reported that parents consider social skills training to be the area of greatest need in terms of educational provision for children with autism and the “single biggest gap in support” (Batten et al) 1 . It is essential, therefore, for research efforts to focus on social skills training within educational provision to support individuals in maximising their skills and potential.

The COSPATIAL project aims to contribute to this broad aim by developing specific interactive technologies for school settings that may help to promote learning and understanding of social skills. The project focuses on the use of two main types of technologies: Collaborative Virtual Environments and Shared Active Surfaces. Their development has been guided by cognitive-behavioural theoretical principles, which assume reciprocity between the ways an individual thinks, feels, and behaves in social situations.

The technologies have also be developed with close involvement from teachers, children and young people, parents and other professionals. Thus, the project stands to offer considerable benefits to children, young people and their teachers with regard to practical ideas and support for facilitating social skills. The project will also considerably extend conceptual knowledge within the research community regarding how and why these particular technologies may promote understanding and skills for children with, and without, autism.

Dr. Sarah Parsons, Reader in the School of Education, is the University of Southampton’s lead academic on the project. She works closely with the team at the University of Nottingham on the development of Collaborative Virtual Environments. Sarah is exploring the links between how children use and interpret the technology and whether this helps them to learn new information. She is also leading the formal evaluation of the technology in the final year of the project. The evaluation will assess whether children can learn social information and skills through their use of the technology and also, crucially, whether this understanding transfers to other ‘real world’ contexts.

1 Batten, A., Corbett, C., Rosenblatt, M., Withers, E. & Yuille, R. (2006) Make school make sense . London, The National Autistic Society, p21.

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