But like many autism interventions, these behavioral technologies may not work for every child on the spectrum. Initial studies show that avatar-based technology is not effective for non-verbal or lower-functioning children. These studies also suggest that computerized programs are unable to replicate subtle facial cues that could help a child learn in the real world.
Still, many experts say avatar technology can be one of many cost-effective and easily-accessible approaches to supplement other forms of autism therapy.
"The potential for implementing this form of therapy should be viewed as an extension of traditional therapies," said Dr. Larry Yin, medical director of the Boone Fetter Autism Clinic in California.
After nearly six months trying different treatments, Penrod finally decided to enroll Jem in applied behavioral analysis, a more conventional type of behavioral intervention that includes private parent-to-child behavioral learning.
"ABA is really the autism miracle in my living room," said Penrod.
Jem, now eight years old, has transitioned from a specialized preschool to a regular second grade classroom. But Penrod said her son's success did not come without setbacks.
"My child, his first year, got 40 hours of therapy a week," said Penrod. "We rearranged our entire life because at least one of us had to be present with him at all times."
While Penrod received financial assistance from the behavioral program, their community, and their school district, many families have to bear the cost of behavioral treatment on their own.
Twenty-four states cover some costs of behavior therapies such as applied behavior analysis. But while some studies suggest behavioral intervention improves social and cognitive performance in some children with autism, many state health programs consider the treatment experimental.
Although Jem's language and interaction skills have improved, he still shows signs of autism. But Penrod said she hopes that with continual therapy, her son may one day be able to drop his autism diagnosis.
"Even if he doesn't 'win the autism lottery,' we know he'll have a good productive life," said Penrod. "He may struggle with his language and social skills, but that's better for us than where we were."