TEDxNavesink Provides Platform to Introduce Social Skills Software
On a stage in front of 750 people, Chris Dudick and Bernadette Mullen brought their passion to life. Through the stories of parents with children who struggle to understand how to act and respond in social situations, the two educators demonstrated their software program aimed at making children feel more comfortable expressing emotions, communicating feelings, and talking about things that are difficult for them.
SiLAS, Socially Interactive Learning Avatar Software, is a software developed by Chris and using the curriculum Bernadette wrote that allows kids with social learning challenges to understand social skills through a curriculum-based learning program. The curriculum Bernadette developed was driven by her years of experience working as a speech-language pathologist. SiLAS uses video game controllers and headset microphones to control 2D cartoon avatars that have the ability to express emotions.
Chris and Bernadette demonstrated how SiLAS works at the annual TEDxNavesink conference. Their talk, “Autism, Avatars, and Alleviating Social Disorders,” took the audience deep into the world of social skills education and what it might be like to be a parent to a special learner.
“Having TEDxNavesink as a platform to spread the word about SiLAS really helped solidify our story — how and why it started,” said Chris. “Anytime that you can reflect back on why you started something and what you’re doing it’s a nice thing.”
TEDxNavesink, an independently-organized TED conference, was held April 9 at Monmouth University. The conference featured innovators and makers from across the country sharing their inspirations and passions.
“I wanted the audience to understand that there are organizations that can provide social skills training to children struggling with social skills learning,” said Bernadette. “There are new and innovative things coming out every day that can motivate a child to learn and use those social skills in real settings. You have to find the things that motivate your child the most and get them excited to learn.”
The pair opened their talk by quoting real fears and concerns of parents whose children are on the autism spectrum or have problems learning social skills. Hopelessness, concern about a lack of friends, expense of therapy, and experiencing marital issues as a result of raising a child with autism were all topics that parents of children with autism struggle with. The opening was relatable and touching, and by following the introduction with an actual demonstration of how SiLAS works using avatars, Chris and Bernadette’s talk became one of the most powerful of the TEDxNavesink conference.
“From our talk the audience could really grasp what kinds of things are happening in the field of autism education,” said Bernadette. “We’re teaching them so many things but we’re not teaching them how to take what they’ve learned and use those skills in the real world. I think for the audience our message was clear. We need to come up with new and exciting ways to teach social skills to kids with autism.”
Chris and Bernadette discussed how to introduce social skills learning to a new generation of tech-loving children. Their answer with SiLAS is to use that technology to their advantage and have the children become avatars. Students can practice new skills that may be difficult for them in reality in a virtual world where they feel more comfortable. The software records their skit and saves it as a movie file the student can watch and learn from again.
“We wanted to show people that there is technology out there that can help and be used in a social way for children on the spectrum,” said Chris. “There are tons of apps and programs where kids are very passive in their learning — old school books and curriculum — but that’s not connecting anymore. When you’re raised with a cell phone and a video game controller in your hands that’s how you learn and teaching has to adapt to that.”
The response from the TEDxNavesink talk has been tremendous. Both on a professional and personal level for Chris and Bernadette.
“Speaking at TEDxNavesink was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done,” said Bernadette. “The entire group has a desire to help other people present the best talk they can. I have learned so much about other people. I’ve learned things that are helping me professionally and privately that I wasn’t even looking for when I did this.
Chris and Bernadette have gotten SiLAS into a dozen schools and are participating in two different studies over the summer to help SiLAS gain momentum, including a study with researchers at Princeton University.
“We’re working on finding partnerships and alliances to help us get into schools,” said Chris.
Watch Chris and Bernadette’s TEDxNavesink video here.
For more information about SiLAS, visit http://silassolutions.com/.