Immersive media environments for special education: developing agency in communication for youth with autism

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This dissertation describes the development of a state-of-the-art immersive media environment and its potential to motivate high school youth with autism to vocally express themselves. Due to the limited availability

This dissertation describes the development of a state-of-the-art immersive media environment and its potential to motivate high school youth with autism to vocally express themselves. Due to the limited availability of media environments in public education settings, studies on the use of such systems in special education contexts are rare. A study called Sea of Signs utilized the Situated Multimodal Art Learning Lab (SMALLab), to present a custom-designed conversational scenario for pairs of youth with autism. Heuristics for building the scenario were developed following a 4-year design-based research approach that fosters social interaction, communication, and self-expression through embodied design. Sea of Signs implemented these heuristics through an immersive experience, supported by spatial and audio-visual feedback that helped clarify and reinforce students' vocal expressions within a partner-based conversational framework. A multiple-baseline design across participants was used to determine the extent to which individuals exhibited observable change as a result of the activity in SMALLab. Teacher interviews were conducted prior to the experimental phase to identify each student's pattern of social interaction, communication, and problem-solving strategies in the classroom. Ethnographic methods and video coding were used throughout the experimental phase to assess whether there were changes in (a) speech duration per session and per turn, (b) turn-taking patterns, and (c) teacher prompting per session. In addition, teacher interviews were conducted daily after every SMALLab session to further triangulate the nature of behaviors observed in each session. Final teacher interviews were conducted after the experimental phase to collect data on possible transfer of behavioral improvements into students' classroom lives beyond SMALLab. Results from this study suggest that the activity successfully increased independently generated speech in some students, while increasing a focus on seeking out social partners in others. Furthermore, the activity indicated a number of future directions in research on the nature of voice and discourse, rooted in the use of aesthetics and phenomenology, to augment, extend, and encourage developments in directed communication skills for youth with autism.