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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Thursday, Jun. 21, 2012 9 years ago

UCF avatars help kids with social anxiety

New study asks for participants from the community
by: Deborah Beidel

One of the most popular girls in school smiles and tells her classmate, “You are the nicest person I know!”

Many children would smile back and eagerly return the compliment. But some children with social anxiety may be too terrified to respond.

Social interactions give those children severe distress – not just a few minutes of nervousness or discomfort. Their fear can prevent them from playing on a sports team or participating in a dance recital or going to a birthday party.

Our research team at the University of Central Florida’s Anxiety Disorders Clinic teaches children the skills they need to become comfortable socially – the skills most people learn from being around other people.

This month, we’re launching a new study that we expect will benefit children in Central Florida and eventually around the country.

We partnered with Virtually Better of Atlanta to develop a new, one-of-a-kind computer simulation program that enables children to interact with avatars playing the roles of classmates, teachers and a principal.

The simulation, designed for children ages 8 to 12, allows clinicians to play the roles of the avatars while the children sit at a computer in a different room and respond to situations they encounter routinely. The children practice greetings, giving and receiving compliments, being assertive and asking and answering questions.

The National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, provided a $500,000 grant to fund the development of the software and a 12-week study that will begin this summer.

We are looking for 30 children ages 8 to 12 with social anxiety disorders to participate in the free study. Participants will need to come to the UCF campus twice weekly. The study also will feature homework that children will do on either a home computer or a laptop that the research team will provide for free during the study.

Parents or guardians who are interested in learning more about the study can call our Anxiety Disorders Clinic at 407-823-4254. The research team will conduct short interviews to determine whether children qualify.

Our clinic also offers what we call the “gold standard” of treatments. Children with anxiety disorders are paired with socially comfortable peers for outings to places such as bowling alleys, restaurants and miniature golf courses.

The new study will give parents multiple treatment options at UCF. But parents in most communities aren’t so fortunate. Many clinicians who treat children don’t have the time or resources to recruit socially comfortable children and organize regular outings. Guiding clients through a simulation in the office may be the only feasible solution for them.

If the initial trial goes well, we hope to conduct a year-long trial with more children. The program eventually could be expanded to include other settings, such as playgrounds, and to serve other children who need help improving social skills.

If you believe the initial study could help your child, we hope to hear from you soon. If you know other children in Central Florida who could benefit from our work, please encourage their parents or guardians to give us a call.

UCF psychology professor Deborah Beidel is the director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic, a clinical research center dedicated to the study and treatment of anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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