- Associated Press - Friday, July 31, 2015

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Everyone involved in treating children with autism, from the professionals to the parents to the children with autism themselves, can tell you how frustrating the treatment can be.

Carson City’s Gary Jesch has used his expertise in live animation to develop what looks to be a breakthrough when it comes to making the treatment of children with autism far less frustrating.

Jesch has designed Invirtua 3D Digital Puppeteer TM — a program that combines live animation with autism treatment techniques to provide treatment for children with autism. The Invirtua program had its coming out party at the 2015 National Autism Society Conference held July 8-11 in Denver, where it received rave reviews.

The Invirtua program features live, animated 3D characters that can be operated much like a digital puppet show. Children with autism learn to use the simple controls to interact with the avatar characters. The program is now available to be used by professionals involved in the treatment of children with autism at their places of work.

Enid Webb, a speech pathologist for the last 17 years practicing in Gardnerville, has been using the Invirtua program at her Webb Center for Communication and Learning to treat children with autism since October 2014.

“This is an incredible tool for working with kids with autism,” Webb said. “It has changed the way I work. They are very visual learners and their brains think in animation. Communicating through the avatar removes the authority figure and makes it easier to address certain issues as well as teach and practice very specific skills. It’s a powerful reinforcer and a teaching instrument. It has truly been life-changing in my practice.”

Professor Ian C. Hale, author of “The Insider’s Guide to Autism and Asperger’s, et al,” said about Invirtua, “It is, in my professional experience of 30 years, the best communicative aide available to the autistic community.”

Dr. Tom Buggey is a researcher with 22 years of experience in modeling, an established treatment of autism.

“Invirtua’s program involves modeling through an avatar,” Buggey said. “There is research on components of Invirtua that make me think it has the potential to become a powerful tool for teaching children, especially those with autism, for whom we have so few effective methods.”

Jesch said the problem with treating children with autism is the treatment becomes boring, tedious and frustrating for both the child and the therapist.

“Making these treatment sessions real fun and interesting without them realizing they’re getting a lesson with animation” was his goal, Jesch said.

Another advantage, Jesch said, is his program allows the child to be creative.

“It’s up to the person who uses it to use it how they want,” he said. “It depends on the creativity of the person who uses it.”

But Jesch cautioned his program isn’t a magic elixir.

“It’s not that one session does the miracle,” he said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Jesch is a third generation Northern Nevadan whose parents and grandmother were born in Fallon. He attended the University of Nevada, Reno, where he earned a degree in broadcast journalism and was the editor of the Sagebrush student newspaper in 1977. He lived in Incline Village from 1981 to 2007 before moving to Carson City in 2007.

In 1993 he attended a virtual reality conference.

“I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. So he ended up becoming a performance animation artist that year. His first project was to create the live animated character Mark Twain. Well-known Mark Twain impressionist McAvoy Lane provided the voice for the character.

That led him to begin the business CHOPS and Associates Live Animation. Through his company he has worked with Fortune 500 companies and has traveled all over the United States and the world, including China, the Philippines, South America, Mexico and Europe.

He has gone from using 35-milimeter slide shows to carrying 300 to 400 pounds of equipment to the technology he works with now.

The seed was planted for him to work with children with autism in 1997, when he read an academic paper that stated wouldn’t it be great if children could use computers to help them with their facial expressions and body language.

“That really stuck with me,” Jesch said.

He said he wanted to “make a difference in people’s lives and do something that really matters. Not that entertainment doesn’t matter. But this can be a way that I can get a product out there and do these kids good all the way around the world.”

Not surprisingly, parents of children with autism have already shown a great interest in Invirtua. While Invirtua isn’t available yet for parents to use directly in their homes, laptops are available for professionals to use in making home visits.

And Jesch is working on developing a partnership with Microsoft in which its Xbox video gaming system and Windows computers could be used by parents of children with autism at home.

Jesch admits he doesn’t know what the future holds, but can see Invirtua being used in schools and even with senior citizens in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.

Among the activities Jesch likes doing in his spare time is taking his 18-foot catamaran in the summer out on Lake Tahoe. He also helps his wife, Sue, with her work in “Strings in the Schools” in Carson City where she teaches the violin.

Professionals can now purchase the Invirtua program for $2,790 and the laptop to be used in homes for $3,300.

With any new technology and the possibility of Microsoft becoming involved, the potential is there for the cost of the Invirtua program to be reduced in the future.

Whatever the case, Jesch has made a bold prediction comparing children with autism using his program to how a musician uses a musical instrument.

“I think it’s going to be a surprise to the world to see the things they’re going to do with these avatars,” he said.

___

Information from: Nevada Appeal, https://www.nevadaappeal.com


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