Q&A: The Virtual Environment for Social Information Processing (VESIP™)

Kwick/ March 19, 2013/ Special Features

The Virtual Environment for Social Information Processing (VESIP™) is the latest research endeavor at Rush NeuroBehavioral Center. The tool is an innovative assessment of social information processing, utilizing a computerized simulation in which children adopt the role of an avatar and use a computer mouse to navigate challenging social situations and engage in real-time social decision-making. Principal investigator Nicole Russo-Ponsaran, Ph.D., Associate Research Director at RNBC, answered several questions about the VESIP and its potential impact on communities impacted by autism spectrum disorders.

Q: What are the main goals during the current phase of the trials?

NRP: The primary goal is to show that the tool is valid and sensitive to diagnostic differences. We’re also interested in determining the usability & likability of this iteration of the assessment. We modified certain aspects based on feedback from children during a previous trial–for example, the assessment is now taken with a computer mouse instead of a video game controller–and we hope to learn whether they find it acceptable and relatively easy to understand.

Q: Will this study have an impact on existing research?

NRP: The goal is that it will be useful in research and clinical practice. We want to use the VESIP first as an assessment tool because we believe it will be more reliable and ecologically valid compared to existing tools. Once we’ve established that our tool is effective, we can ask different research questions around children’s social reasoning skills and use those results to inform intervention design. Specifically, we can understand the relationships between different components of social information processing and how that might inform interventions.

Q: How will the VESIP benefit children with Autism-spectrum disorders?

NRP: One of the biggest challenges for children on the spectrum is interacting with peers, so if we can gain a better understanding of specific problem areas we’ll be able to produce better interventions. We developed five different categories of social situations that are challenging for children –for example, entering into a group of other children or interpreting ambiguous actions. While some can identify the challenges of a hypothetical situation, they may break down when the same challenges present themselves in reality. Alternatively, other kids have trouble identifying the issues themselves, so once we’ve identified that distinction it becomes easier to address individual challenges. The tool is designed to break down the steps in the social reasoning process and provide us with very specific information about what to address for individual children.

Q: What distinguishes the VESIP from other assessments of social information processing?

NRP: There aren’t many comparable tools – most assessments have been completed via semi-structured interview, where an interviewer would ask children to imagine themselves in a particular situation and then gather feedback based on the responses. The VESIP is expected to more closely approximate what happens when a child is in the midst of a challenging social situation. We designed the VESIP to be an immersive experience, so instead of simply describing a situation and asking for a response, we provide a number of different scenarios in familiar environments that we believe elicits the most complete and reliable responses from children. It’s also designed to be game-like and interactive; children are able to move through the assessment at their own pace. Additionally, very little expertise is required to collect and interpret results from an administrative standpoint.

For more information about the VESIP or to find out how you can get involved, please email RNBC_Research@rush.edu.

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