Liberal Arts

Adolescents with autism sought for unique computer-gaming intervention study

"Teenage Pet Detective" is an immersive game designed to improve the social skills of adolescents with Autism. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Improving social skills for adolescents with autism is the goal of a new five-year Penn State project being funded by the National Institutes of Health.                                         

Suzy Scherf, associate professor of psychology and head of the Laboratory of Developmental Neuroscience (LDN) at Penn State, and her research team are seeking adolescents ages 10 to 17 who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (including Asperger’s and autism) to take part in the study and intervention.

The intervention is an immersive computer game in which players take on the role of a teenage pet detective to find missing animals. Along the way, they interact with animal and human characters, navigate worlds, find objects and solve mysteries.

According to Scherf, “The game is built around principles that foster learning of difficult skills. We hope to improve the way adolescents with autism attend to nonverbal social cues, particularly those from faces. Adolescents have to learn how to focus on these cues to solve mysteries, and find the pets, in the game.”

Potential participants complete phone and online screenings before coming to the LDN at Penn State’s University Park campus for up to three visits. Families will be financially compensated for their lab time ($20/hour) and travel expenses. If eligible for the intervention, participants will play the computer game at home for two months, and will also be compensated for time spent playing the game. Parents will be asked to answer questions about their child’s behavior and social abilities.

Interest parents should contact Sara Carlson, project manager, at, (814) 863-5626, or go to website to see a video of the game.

Scherf is one of 37 co-funded faculty members at Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute. Other Penn State support for the project is being provided by the Educational Gaming Commons and the Child Study Center.

Last Updated September 26, 2017