Research + Efficacy

The Science Behind Sidekicks

Kevin PelphreyIndividuals with autism use their affinities like Enigma machines to help decipher an otherwise incomprehensible social world.
Kevin Pelphrey
PhS, Yale School of Medicine

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).

Sidekicks + Autism Speaks Research Collaborative

Sidekicks and Autism Speaks have partnered to explore how affinities affect the lives of people with autism. The collaborative began with the first comprehensive survey of affinities and how they affect the lives of people with autism. Sign up below to receive the results of the survey.

Birtwell Study

Researchers at Harvard’s Lurie Center for Autism are launching a study on how Sidekicks promotes both the acquisition and generalization of social communication and emotional regulation skills. Using Sidekicks, researchers will tackle topics such as emotion identification, social communication skills, emotional triggers, social problem solving skills, friendship-seeking skills, and coping skill identification and use. The study will divide participants into two groups: one that uses Sidekicks to work on social communication training and cognitive-behavioral therapy, and one that does the therapy sessions without Sidekicks. After 12 weeks, the researchers will compare how children in each group are progressing.

Gabrielli Study

Researchers from MIT, Yale, and Cambridge University are also setting out to better understand the role affinities play in autism. Using fMRI, an imaging technique that measures brain activity based on changes in blood flow, they plan to investigate how the brain’s reward system responds to special interests. Participants in the study will be presented with a visual cue — either a circle or a triangle — prompting them to press a button. In one condition, pressing the correct buttons results in a reward of $1; in the other condition, the reward is an image related to their special interest. Researchers will then compare the difference in brain activity based on reward type.