Avatars, Anthropomorphism, and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Here at CodeBaby, we talk often about how accessibility is one of our core values as a company. Whenever we create a new character or new features for our platform, we are always mindful of what more we could be doing to make our avatars not just available, but also highly effective and relatable, for the widest audience of potential users possible. We exist to make communication not just easier, but easier for everyone.

Providing users with the option to use text or speech, optimizing our UI for assistive reading devices, and creating engaging, empathetic characters that make users feel comfortable and heard are keys to our being able to reach as many people as possible.

And the very style of our characters makes it more likely that users with Autism Spectrum Disorder can engage with our characters than they would be with an actual human agent. We’re going to take more of a look into that here.

In an article published in 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, authors Gray Atherton and Liam Cross take a deep dive into the issues facing individuals with ASD in relation to “reading” the faces of anthropomorphized animal or cartoon characters vs. those of humans. The article is well cited and deserving of a read for those who want a thorough understanding of the various theories around the challenges individuals with ASD face in judging the mental states and intentions of humans, and how each of those theories may apply to why, in numerous studies, those with ASD can show near typical or advanced reading of animal and cartoon faces.

Some of the key takeaways from the article:

  • Theory of Mind (ToM) is the process of being able to take someone or something else’s perspective and ToM tests reveal differences between those with ASD and Neurotypical individuals.
    “(W)while individuals with ASD traditionally show deficits on a wide range of ToM tests, such as recognizing facial emotions, such ToM deficits may be ameliorated if the stimuli presented is cartoon or animal-like rather than in human form. Individuals with ASD show a greater interest in anthropomorphic characters and process the features of these characters using methods typically reserved for human stimuli.”
  • Anthropomorphism “often occurs when non-human entities are perceived as behaving both intentionally and unpredictably… Thus, when non-human entities behave invariably, we reflexively attempt to make sense of that behavior, by tracing it back to a particular goal or purpose.” The tendency to anthropomorphize animal and cartoon characters (or even shapes or every day objects) can be an attempt to recognize patterns of behavior and predict what will happen next. This process is called predictive encoding.
  • The “uncanny valley” occurs “when a stimuli is presented as human, such as a humanoid robot, yet their behavior is too predictable or mechanical, numerous error signals are transmitted, and as a result it is difficult to predict the robot’s actions.” Why does the uncanny valley bother us so much? “As people have extensive knowledge of the types of goals that underlie such behaviors in human agents, the more one humanizes, for example, an unpredictable gadget, the easier it becomes to predict the gadget’s future behavior. This helps explain why, in contrast, dehumanizing an agent, such as the robot in the “uncanny valley,” leads to particularly strong predictive encoding disruption.”
  • Even though people with ASD often show deficiencies in areas like self-referential cognition and mirror neural activity, “individuals with ASD appear to display an affinity for anthropomorphism and an even stronger performance on ToM tasks when agents are non-human.”
  • A 2016 study looked measured the neural responses of children with ASD and neurotypical children when shown unfamiliar human and robot faces. The test showed that the targeted responses were present for both for neurotypical children, but only for the robot faces for the kids with ASD. “Together, these studies provide some evidence that individuals with ASD may typically process anthropomorphic rather than human faces, and that the mechanisms underlying this processing be may not be entirely attributable to [circumscribed interests]… [I]ndividuals with ASD increasingly anthropomorphize when agents are human-like and are less inclined to anthropomorphize agents that are strictly human, possibly indicating a closer identification with anthropomorphic creatures.”
  • Research indicates that it may be the exaggeration of features and gestures in animal and cartoon characters that lead to better reading of them by people with ASD. “Cartoon characters are also characterized by exaggerated motion, which serves to direct attention toward socially relevant aspects of the animation. In a similar way to animal agents, individuals with ASD may be more primed to attend to the unpredictability of cartoon motion as it is exaggerated and thus more salient. … When an avatar showed exaggerated facial motion, compared to dampened or realistic motion, nonverbal behaviors such as gaze or gesturing significantly increased. This is in line with research showing that individuals with ASD are less impaired when interpreting overt emotional expressions, and struggle more with the detection of subtle facial emotional changes.”
  • Even though studies indicate that people with ASD are more likely to consume TV or animated content, researchers don’t think that’s the cause of those individuals better understanding those characters. Rather, they believe that people with ASD gravitate toward those types of characters for numerous reasons. “[I]t is hypothesized that the developed stressors associated with human contact may not extend to human-like stimuli. In this way, individuals with ASD may be more motivated to attend to anthropomorphic stimuli in typical ways, as anthropomorphic stimuli feature properties that differentiate them from purely human agents. It is also hypothesized that as individuals with ASD are able to attend to motion, and struggle with the nuances of emotion, an ability to decode animal and cartoon emotion using overt movement cues could make social processing less difficult, thereby enhancing [social motivation]. The frequent exposure to cartoons and animal agents may also serve to enhance motivational engagement with such stimuli.”
  • The authors of the article concluded that the ToM capabilities for people with ASD in regards to anthropomorphized characters eclipse their capabilities with human agents. Not only does that offer better pathways of understanding for people with ASD, but it could provide tools to improve capabilities with humans, as well. “In conclusion we have highlighted how the ability to anthropomorphize may not only be intact in those with ASD, but those with the condition may even display a particular affinity for seeing human in the non-human. Evidence suggests that ToM abilities, which are usually disrupted in this population, may be ameliorated, spared, or even enhanced when they are directed toward anthropomorphic rather than human agents. As we have shown, anthropomorphizing may be a potential scaffold for improving ToM abilities more generally in this population, as they correspond with a number of strengths intrinsic to ASD. Identifying and capitalizing on such strengths may be the key to improving ToM, and allowing those with ASD better integration within the wider social world.”

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