Mission possible: Secret agent software helps kids with autism
Jacob Ciupe, age 8, just started his life as a Junior Agent for a top-secret society. On this new mission he’s chosen to accept, Jacob investigates the basic human interactions many take for granted—the social enigmas of interacting with kids his own age.
Jacob has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is an umbrella term for conditions including autism and Asperger’s syndrome, developmental disorders that appear in the first three years of a child’s life. According to the most recent data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 88 American children have been identified with an ASD. The CDC reports that autism is almost five times more common among boys than girls, with an estimated 1 out of 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls diagnosed. Among other things, ASDs affect the brain’s ability to interpret social cues and develop social and communication skills.
To help children like Jacob with the fundamental skills of socialization, the professionals at the Pediatric Developmental Center at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center have brought the Secret Agent Society to Chicago.
“The Secret Agent Society is a social skills program that focuses on the children’s emotional recognition, emotional regulation and social competence,” says Laura Mulford, PhD, child psychologist and one of the first Americans to train in the program when introduced to the U.S. two years ago. “Children with autism have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the emotions of others. Because of this, they can have trouble making friends and socializing.”
Through the 26-week Secret Agent Society classroom curriculum, a computer program provides the Junior Detectives with a custom avatar they lead through short missions. These missions offer a fun and safe way to recognize and express various emotions in themselves and the other people they interact with. Then the Junior Detectives take what they’ve learned and apply it in practice with one another and at home.
The program specifically sets out to teach children how to:
Cope with feelings of anger and anxiety
- Tell the difference between friendly joking and mean teasing
- Manage bullying
- Handle new situations and ask for help when needed
- Make friends
Dr. Mulford says one study of the unique program showed 76 percent of participants improved their social skills to within the range of their peers without ASD. The local program has shown similar success, she says.
Jacob’s mother, Lisandra Ciupe, says though Jacob has just started the program, she’s already noticed changes in his behavior. “He’s exploring and learning to interact with other kids a little more. He really likes Secret Agent Society. He looks forward to it.”
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