Richard Serna, an associate professor of psychology addressed the acute need for professionals trained in the most effective treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder. Early treatment is critical in addressing intellectual delays and disabilities, as well as in heading off behavioral problems.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in 50 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Serna is collaborating with fellow psychologist and Associate Prof. Charles Hamad of UMass Medical School to develop the new training tool.

The software will feature a virtual child, programmed with learning difficulties associated with autism spectrum disorder, who can interact with people training in behavioral intervention techniques. "The software will be useful in college classrooms, for new employees of agencies, special education teachers, paraprofessionals   in the schools and even parents," said Serna.

Serna and Hamad, who is the co-director of UMass Medical's Center for University Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, have collaborated on previous NIMH-Small Business Technology Transfer Program grants to develop software for people with intellectual disabilities.

Serna and Hamad will start with a virtual boy in a simulated environment, since boys are diagnosed with ASD four or five times more frequently than girls. The virtual boy will present common learning difficulties and the software user will practice applying the best behavioral intervention technique to help the boy learn a new skill or desired behavior.

If the software user chooses the correct actions in the appropriate sequence – including praising the virtual boy each time he performs the desired skill or behavior to reinforce his learning – the software will allow the user to move to the next lesson. If the user does not implement the procedure correctly, the software will provide feedback until the user has mastered the technique.

"It is of critical importance in behavioral intervention that you implement the procedures with accuracy and precision," Serna said. "The software is like a flight simulator: It is a do-no-harm way of practicing before you work with real children."  "With a simulation and a virtual child, we will have far more flexibility to change it and add features, and it will be less expensive than hiring actors and shooting and editing video."

"We will add voice control, more features, different virtual children, more languages, more interventions and more behaviors and levels of difficulty," said Serna. "There is a great need for such training in China, Brazil, Spanish-speaking Latin American countries and other places, so it could go worldwide."