Technology and Autism

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, CA, August 15th, 2014 — Can technology benefit those with autism?

UCI professor Gillian Hayes thinks it can and does. Hayes, whose primary academic appointment is in informatics (she also has appointments in education and pediatrics) told this week’s SURF-IT seminar series lunchtime audience that available services for those with autism are not keeping pace with the massive increase in the number of diagnoses. While extra funding would certainly help, “We hope technology can bridge some of this gap,” she said.

Assessment and diagnosis, for example, can be improved. Autism telemetrics, as the field is known, uses sensors, audio and video to conduct thorough assessments without

Assessing children’s language, motor skills and behaviors can be challenging because “usually people have to invade your space to measure these things,” Hayes said. But technology can bypass these hurdles and others, like ecological validity, which involves different behavior outcomes depending on the location where testing occurs.
Technology also allows researchers to model change over time, enables multi-modal data analysis and visualization, and provides real-time feedback.

Hayes, who became interested in technology for autism during graduate school, showed the SURF-IT Fellows some early work. These projects include video recordings tagged to therapists’ notes; Care Log, a video system that allows teachers to isolate behaviors in the classroom and review video from the incident, as well as from before and after its occurrence; a sensor board, which detects degrees of hand-flapping and other sensory stimulation associated with autism; and a smart baby monitor that detects developmental milestones for earlier diagnosis.

“We found out, quite happily, that automated capture can be successfully applied to this domain. It can speed up diagnosis and monitoring. With some nice sensor fusion, we can make it all work.”

There are still obstacles, however, including the ability to monitor only when necessary, and doing it in a socially acceptable way. “Saving only the right data at the right time and not a whole bunch of extraneous stuff that makes people uncomfortable is very challenging,” Hayes said. Other challenges include merging implicit and explicit data as well as privacy and control issues.

Technology in the classroom presents another issue, one that educators must recognize. Measurement and accountability are important, especially for teachers of children with autism. A trend toward Outcome-Based Education, also known as “No Child Left Behind,” focuses on testing, record-keeping, monitoring and surveillance, all of which are facilitated by technology, but, Hayes said, it’s important that they don’t overshadow the actual work of teaching.
Recently, Hayes has focused on creating technology to promote inclusion and empower those with autism. This has led to collaborations with local teachers and parents, as well as children and adults with autism. “That’s been really cool,” she said.

One project – an augmented reality device – helps users develop social skills like good eye contact, appropriate proximity to others, and strategies for beginning and ending conversations. Kids are given Android phones with an overlay installed that allows them to locate and sync with others; the device then guides the interaction. When the project was deployed with 12 children, some of whom have autism and some of whom are neurotypical, results showed a substantial reduction in social mishaps and fewer behavioral issues. “We saw the kids with autism finding new strategies for initiating interactions. They also better understood the creation of groups (otherwise known as playground politics),” Hayes said, adding that there was a pleasant surprise as well. “The neurotypical kids adopted a mentoring behavior; they started acting a lot nicer too.” 

Next, Hayes’ research will focus on transitioning from “carryable” to wearable devices, like GoogleGlass and embedded sensors. She’s also interested in bringing technology to environmental therapies that incorporate multiple textures, colors, lights, mirrors and other multi-sensory stimulation. A video-based sensory paint project uses Xbox technology “Kinect” to allow children to experience painting with textured, colored balls while watching their own reflections. “For these kids, holding a remote might be hard but Kinect-based games allow them to engage without having to hold anything,” she said.

She is also interested in moving from “human-directed” technologies to those that are “human-assisted,” citing video games as a good example. Several games already on the market and available through iTunes and other online vendors, help children advance in certain skills like labeling, asking questions, and sharing attention with others. These therapies encourage kids to speak for themselves, she said. “It’s probably not as effective as human-based therapy but it’s appealing to kids, they want to play these games and they are learning something in the process.”

Unfortunately, thousands of available games don’t fit into the “sweet spot” of being well-designed and functional. “What you see is a whole bunch of media hype about this space, and a very small percentage actually fits into [this category]. This is what we’re trying to fix,” she added.

In closing, Hayes said that while technology provides effective new options, “it’s not the silver bullet the media would have you believe.” And along with new opportunities, it can produce more challenges. “We see this for sure in the autism space,” she told the audience. “And that’s why we believe that the empirical study of new interventions and products is so important.”