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MU online curriculum helps children with autism develop better social skills

Research-backed program will be available to millions of families and educators worldwide

Jan. 18, 2018

Story Contact(s):
Cailin Riley, rileyci@umsystem.edu, 573-882-4870

COLUMBIA, Mo. – One in 68 children in the United States has some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with peers. Because of the social challenges these children face, many efforts are being made to find new ways to help children with autism develop their social skills. iSocial, a classroom curriculum designed by University of Missouri researchers to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder cultivate better social skills, has been licensed by Nascent Stage Development LLC to develop the program into an expansive, online virtual world. Nascent will contract with other online educational companies to make the lessons available to millions of families and educators worldwide.

iSocial helps children with autism develop better social skills by leading them through a guided lesson plan that incorporates evidence-based strategies. In the virtual world, children, parents and teachers will be able to collaborate and interact using personal avatars. Janine Stichter, professor of special education and the author of the iSocial curriculum in the MU College of Education, collaborated with Jim Laffey, professor emeritus in the College of Education, to develop the initial online platform. Stichter said a digital platform enhances the ability to reach more students.

“An online format of iSocial increases opportunities for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder because it gives them opportunities for repeated practice and feedback that are hard to find in a typical classroom,” Stichter said. “The digital platform also helps children build connections and friendships with other students, and provides families and educators access to an interactive platform that supports student learning.”

Bob Etzel, the president and founder of Nascent, and his team have agreements with commercial partners that will provide powerful channels for the program. iSocial is working with Sandbox and Co., an online education company, to reach more than 20 million children, teachers and parents worldwide, every month.

A representative from the MU Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations successfully pitched iSocial to Etzel through Whiteboard2Boardroom, a University of Missouri-Kansas City Innovation Center program that gives entrepreneurs and corporations an early look at innovations coming out of Missouri and Kansas research institutions.

“Identifying promising faculty innovations like iSocial and finding companies like Nascent that will further develop and commercialize them is the primary role of our office,” said Chris Fender, director of the Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations. “We’re excited that this partnership enables MU’s pioneering autism curriculum to reach more children, no matter where they live.”

Stichter provides support to the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, which provides evidence-based assessment and treatment services for children with autism spectrum disorder and their families. Nascent will start selling the paper version of iSocial immediately; construction on the virtual world begins this March. More information about this project can be found at www.isocl.net.

Editor’s note: Janine Stichter’s last name is pronounced “Steester,” rhymes with Easter.

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