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TechDemo 2010: Innovative Technologies for Understanding and Supporting Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders

May 22, 2010 5 comments

Guest Bloggers: Matthew Goodwin, Ph.D., Katharina Boser, Ph.D. (co-chairs of the ITA Steering Committee) and Sophia Colamarino, Ph.D., Autism Speaks VP, Research

The second day of IMFAR brought the second autism Technology Demo sponsored by Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technologies for Autism (ITA) initiative. One of the newest features of the conference, this unique event consisted of live demonstrations of 30 technologies being developed around the world to benefit a number of critical areas affecting individuals with ASD, their families, and the professionals who strive to better support them. This year, while throngs of scientists listened to oral presentations and discussed research posters, TechDemo 2010 provided community members with an opportunity to interact with some of the most recent advancements in the areas of robotics, virtual reality, assistive communication devices, video and audio capture technology, on-body sensors and much more. Taking advantage of the fun, several local families came to explore the technologies with their children and provide critical feedback to the researchers.

The primary mission of Autism Speaks’ ITA initiative is to stimulate creative design that can provide more immediate and tangible solutions to the challenges faced by individuals living with autism today, and the session illustrated the many ways that technology can enhance and accelerate the pace of autism research and treatment.

Several presentations used interactive puzzles and computer avatars to teach children conversational skills or how to read expressions. For instance, one popular project involved the Disney animated character Crush from “Finding Nemo” in an interactive animated show at Disney’s Epcot called “Turtle Talk.” In this show, an actor operates the Crush character remotely using hidden cameras to view his audience. This allows the actor to modulate his interactions in response to specific situational information. The professional Disney actors are also trained to modulate their voice and elicit social interactions such as imitations through engaging games, vocal play and banter. Researchers discovered that young children with autism and minimal verbal skill responded to the turtle with both spontaneous and delayed imitation of vocalizations and gestures. Some children even initiated spontaneous questions, something their parents reported they had never done. These early pilot results are promise as an alternative and engaging therapy to increase arousal level for greater sustained attention and learning.

Emma Brightman attended the Tech Demo with her father Jay and her babysitter Nicole Jacobs. “The interactive computer games were definitely her favorite,” they said afterwards, as a smiling Emma emerged from the room.

A collection of projects also explored the opportunities for using novel sensing devices on the body and in the environment to help parents and therapists understand life from the perspective of an individual with an ASD. For instance, one demonstration showed wearable wireless physiological sensors that record internal arousal states in naturalistic settings, such as at home and school. The technology is being developed to document and understand stress and arousal in persons with autism during engagement with a variety of social, communicative, and learning activities. These physiological measures may guide an occupational therapist as to whether therapies they are using are effective, and what time of day offers optimal arousal for the purpose of treatment. The child may also be able to use the technology to analyze their own internal states. Moreover, in some cases these same technologies can be used as biofeedback to engage individuals more effectively in therapeutic games and everyday activities.  

Mobile applications were also very popular this year. Several at the Demo were shown to improve social skills and awareness in high functioning students with ASD. One product called Symtrend has been developed for use with the iPod/iPad and allows users to log their ‘stress’ responses at various points of the day and can be customized for a variety of different uses and cueing purposes. YouthCare have now adapted it for a summer camp in which students are taught mindfulness and Cognitive Behavior Training to raise awareness of anxiety and stress, and learn strategies to effectively deal with overwhelming feelings. The advantage of such a program is that students can compare their own impression regarding their affective state with that provided by their therapist, as all responses can be tracked and synched via a data graphing and output program that is web-based. Using this method, researchers report a change in physiological response to stress and anxiety such as reduced heart rate as well as an improved ability to talk about and cope with these feelings.

 A second program developed for the iPod acts as a mobile social compass. Based on the social skills interventions that include pictorial representations of social rules, this mobile compass with GPS aids the student by giving pictorial cues to distinguish strangers from friends and prompt them regarding how to interact with such people differently in terms of proximal space and conversation skills. For example, the device can store personal interest information about friends and cue the user with a topic sentence for initiating for a sustainable conversation. In addition, if the user terminates the conversation and starts to walk away, the device can cue for appropriate ‘closure’ of the conversation. This device was found to successfully augment an existing social curriculum and encouraged students to use the system more regularly.

 “As a parent you want your child to be able to communicate and socialize,” said Gail Walsh, who felt her son Dillon could benefit greatly from these technologies. “We’re working on functional skills at home, and seeing all this research really gives me hope.”

 The families in attendance were also eager to share their passion for technology. Doug Fischer attended with his son Ben and Ben’s teacher Dave Mendell, who in honor of the special event had together made a poster describing the many ways they use technology in their own classroom. Upon entering the demo, the young scientist-to-be promptly set the poster up amidst all the other presentations and soon found himself explaining to the scientists what he thinks needs to be done!

 For more information on the Tech Demo and to find the full set of research abstracts, see http://www.autism-insar.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=187&Itemid=164.

The conference continues through Saturday. To read complete coverage from IMFAR, please visit http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science_news/imfar_2010.php

Ben Fischer

Emma Brightman

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