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Interacting with Marla the Fish

February 2020

Bruna Gonçalves using a laptop, and a child is visible through a glass window watching an animation onscreen.

A team of special education researchers in the McKay School led by assistant professor Ryan Kellems are using an animated fish to teach social interaction to children with autism.

The children have conversations with Marla the Fish, who is controlled in real time by student researchers in an adjoining room. Marla’s mouth movements and facial expressions are synchronized to the researcher’s voice, and the teacher and child practice the principles of human interaction. Later the children practice with their peers.

Bruna Gonçalves, a graduate student in special education, has been deeply involved in the research because of her sister, who has cerebral palsy. Gonçalves is often the voice for Marla and enjoys seeing children progress. Gonçalves saw one of the study's participants at her practicum and was delighted that he was starting conversations with children around him.

“It was incredible to see someone using what they had learned. I saw him generalize skills. I will always remember that,” Gonçalves said. The donor-funded project has shown positive results thus far.

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