Game theory

Lily Gullion had a passion for helping children with disabilities when she came to the University of South Carolina, and it’s taken the exercise science junior all the way to the Netherlands this summer for an intensive research project.

Gullion is working with psychology professors at Radboud University in Nijmegen to refine a set of computer games intended to measure children’s teamwork skills. The computer games, created by Carolina exercise science professor Roger Newman-Norland, could potentially be used in therapy for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“We've been thinking up many alterations to the games and brainstorming new scenarios,” says Gullion, who received Magellan Scholar funding and set up a successful crowdfunding campaign on her own to cover expenses for the research trip. “They are helping me go through each game and justify them individually as therapeutic methods. We are asking questions like ‘What cognitive process is this game measuring? What aspect of autism is this game trying to help?’”

Newman-Norland’s computer games could allow therapists to quantify the social skills of children on the autistic spectrum, measuring their progress over time.

“Learning about mental and physical disabilities has always left me filled with questions, and I feel somehow obligated to do what I can to make life better for those who are dealt a more challenging hand,” she says. “Autism is intriguing to me because it deals with something that the majority of us find so natural. No one taught you or me to find connections with other humans or to crave interpersonal relationships.”

Gullion had intended to pursue a degree in special education, but an internship in high school with pediatric occupational therapists — several of whom had earned undergraduate degrees in exercise science at Carolina — changed her direction.

“USC has been such a great surprise to me. I'm embarrassed to say that I had low expectations because I couldn't understand how such a huge school could foster teacher/student relationships,” she says. “However, the faculty and staff have done an excellent job in providing students with personalized experiences, and USC has given me an incredible support system.”

Gullion first traveled abroad last spring with the Capstone Scholars program’s medical mission trip to Nicaragua. She was anxious about traveling alone to the Netherlands with no knowledge of Dutch.

“I really had to get over my pride, and I started asking every train attendant in sight if I was in the right place,” she says. “That has helped me become more confident and knowledgeable about an important aspect of travel, the traveling itself.”

After completing her exercise science degree, Gullion plans to pursue a master's in occupational therapy with a specialty in pediatrics.

“I can't wait to see where this all takes me,” she says. “It's very exciting to have a realistic passion as a 20-year-old."

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