The Science Behind Sidekicks
Individuals with autism use their affinities like Enigma machines to help decipher an otherwise incomprehensible social world.
To date, there’s been very little research on special interests — a characteristic feature of autism. The research that has been done suggests that these interests can be used to motivate autistic individuals to learn and connect with others (Attwood, 1998; Charlop-Christy et al., 1998). For example, by folding their special interest into social situations, affinities can serve as a codebreaker for individuals with ASD, helping them to engage with siblings and peers for longer and with less hesitation (Baker, 2000; Baker et al., 1998; Boyd et al., 2006; Klin et al., 2007). When we look beneath the surface, it seems as though affinities are able to activate the brain regions associated with social functioning — long thought to be less responsive in those with ASD (Foss-Feig, 2016). Affinities can also be used to reinforce learning in educational and behavioural situations, helping autistic individuals to gain new, adaptive responses and build emotional, sensory, and fine motor skills (Charlop-Christy et al., 1998; Charlop et al., 1990; Winter-Messiers, 2007).
Combining the power of affinities with technology, Sidekicks is built upon key findings from a field known as “Human Computer Interaction”: the study of how people interact with machines. Computer-based interventions led by an animated avatar, like the Sidekick, facilitate deeper learning and increase social responses (Gong, 2007; Sah and Peng, 2015). In addition, research suggests that computerized learning is especially helpful for those with autism. A 2016 study found that computer-based interventions can teach conversational turn taking and skills in recognizing body language, facial expressions, and emotions (McCoy et al., 2016).