Augmented Reality facial expression tracking interface to improve Theory of Mind in children with ASD
: based on Design Principles created through a User Centred Design Process

  • Louisa Bremner

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


ASD is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by impairments in social communication and interaction and restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour. Early intervention is recommended to produce the best outcomes for children with ASD. Clinicians therefore use specific therapies that most effectively improve outcomes for children. An intervention that is widely used by teachers and therapists is role play. Role play is a form of pretend play which is widely used by educators and therapists, to improve a variety of skills in children with ASD, including social and communication skills and Theory of Mind (ToM). ToM is the ability to attribute mental state to others, or in other words, the ability to ‘put yourself in someone else's shoes’.

In recent years, digital interventions to support learning for children with ASD which use interactive game-based technology have been increasing. Augmented reality (AR) is one such technology that is beginning to show promising results. AR is an advanced technology, commonly using visual cues, that expands our world by superimposing digital content on top of reality. Several unique features of AR have been shown to support learning for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

This study explores the design and creation of an innovative augmented reality pretend play intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), through a user centred design process (UCD), also known as human centred design. A conceptual system framework was presented for researchers to use to create digital pretend play interventions for children with ASD. The conceptual system framework consisted of user requirements, instructional guidelines, a system template as well as recommendations of suitable technologies.

The conceptual system framework was used to design a prototype intervention for children with ASD, to improve Theory of Mind through an AR based role play (aka socio-dramatic play) activity. The intervention uses the unique affordances of AR, which allow the user to control a digital character using their own facial expressions to facilitate role play activities. The intervention progressed through a rapid prototyping process where user feedback was gained through UCD methods, including focus group and usability testing. The user centred design approach was then adopted to ascertain and validate the design of the application and the user requirements through two usability studies.

The final design is an iPad based AR application using facial expression tracking to interact with the activity. The digital intervention is designed to be used by a child and a guiding adult as a tool to extend and encourage role play. The digital intervention activity is based on familiar characters set in the context of a story book from the Oxford Reading Tree scheme, however, any character-based story book or media could be used. The child uses this to “pretend to be” a
character in the story and accurately present their character’s emotions at different points in the narrative.

The impact of the application on Theory of Mind and overall engagement was evaluated through two sets of case studies, with a total of eight children in two different schools in the North West of the UK. The results establish that an AR face driven interface supports the development of Theory of Mind in children with ASD. The study demonstrated strong evidence for improvement of Theory of Mind for the participants of the study. Engagement in the activity across all cases
was very high. This work could lead to interesting future studies related to AR technologies for children with ASD as increased engagement could lead to improved learning and outcomes.

The two contributions of this study are, firstly, the user requirements and conceptual system framework generated through a UCD approach which could be used by researchers in the design of digital pretend play interventions for children with ASD. Secondly, the creation of an AR intervention which shows strong support for the development of Theory of Mind for children with ASD. Future research and larger scale studies are recommended to validate the results across a wider group of children with ASD and to determine which subsets of children with ASD would benefit the most from this intervention. The intervention should be studied further for its potential to improve social conversation in children with ASD.
Date of Award20 Feb 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDuke Gledhill (Main Supervisor) & Minsi Chen (Co-Supervisor)

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