on the Use of Avatars for Helping Teens with Autism
Byram Hills High School senior Ellen Amico was honored by the Child Mind Institute and the City University of New York with a 2018 Rising Scientist Award.
Ellen was one of five high school students in the New York metro area to win the award, which is presented to students who “demonstrated extraordinary promise in research in the fields of child and adolescent mental health or pediatric neuroscience.”
“Each recipient of the Rising Scientist Award shows drive, commitment and vision for the future of mental health and neuroscience,” said Dr. Harold Koplewicz, president of the institute. “At such a young age, these impressive students already have the motivation and the promise to make strides towards changing the way we look at and treat mental health disorders.”
Ellen received the award and a $2,000 scholarship at the On the Shoulders of Giants Scientific Symposium this past October, the institute’s annual celebration of scientific achievement in child and adolescent psychiatry, psychology and developmental neuroscience.
Through the Byram Hills Dr. Robert Pavlica Authentic Science Research Program, Ellen conducted research aimed at improving the ability of people with autism spectrum disorder to recognize emotions. She tested whether computerized avatars are an effective teaching tool in emotion recognition.
“It felt good to be recognized for my work,” Ellen said. “Working with people with autism was a great experience, and I loved it.”
As part of her research, Ellen worked with a mentor at Vanderbilt University, studying teenagers with and without autism. The subjects viewed videos of human faces and computerized avatars.
“Avatars are used a lot in research and treatment for people with autism spectrum disorder, but no one so far has tested to see if avatars are similar enough to humans,” she said.
The research found that “they are similar to humans and they’re a useful tool in cosimulating real-world interactions for people with autism spectrum disorder,” she said. “A real-world interaction can be a source of anxiety, but replacing it on the computer in a virtual way, it’s less anxiety-inducing, and they can practice.”
“Hopefully other researchers can use my study to back up or support their use of avatars in treatments they may create for people with autism spectrum disorder,” she said.
In addition to recognizing the winners for their scientific contributions, the award also honors students for their leadership and extracurricular involvement. The award is given by the institute and the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.