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How Technology Can Improve the Future for My Daughter

June 24, 2010 22 comments

This guest post is by Susan Schober. Susan is a 4th year Ph.D. Electrical Engineering-Electrophysics student at the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering and a mother to a young daughter with autism.

Eva and I

I was searching for answers to my questions.  Will she ever speak?  Will she have a normal life?  What can I do to help?  What caused this thing called autism? What about her future? I read tons of books and searched the internet for some kind of direction. I felt totally lost. Helpless. Confused. Sad. I was even embarrassed to tell people. In fact, only people I absolutely trusted knew my secret: my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Eva, was diagnosed with non-verbal autism.

After Eva’s first birthday, which was filled with presents, laughter, and friends, she came down with a fever that lasted for two weeks. Her words and eye contact left at this time, never to return. Her big beautiful brown eyes developed a glassed-over look. Where was the little girl with the rosy cheeks that smiled and giggled constantly? All that remained was an unresponsive child that stared at our ceiling fans or at the leaves blowing in the trees. She acquired weird habits like her love of collecting anything plastic, especially gift and credit cards. More recently, she became obsessed with computers and anything electronic.

Her current fascination is fine with me though, as I myself am a Ph.D. Student in Electrical Engineering (EE) at the University of Southern California (USC). At USC, I am completing my doctorate in Ultra-Low Power Radio Frequency/Analog Integrated Circuit Design.

The Diagnosis

One of the first challenges occurred when Eva was one and a half years old.  She was referred by the Regional Center of Orange County to OCKids for a diagnosis. It was pure luck that Eva was to see Dr. Pauline Filipek, who is a specialist in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Dr. Filipek’s nurse, Teri Book, who would eventually become a great friend, was in charge of scheduling the barrage of tests – which including blood work, EEGs, EKGs, hearing, vision, ultrasound for gastrointestinal issues, and genetics – that followed to get a more accurate picture of what was going on. The official diagnosis came in a 40-page report a few months later. I read it over and over with tears in my eyes.

Eva’s Early Start program started soon after. Her therapies included physical, speech/language, Occupational Therapy (OT), and Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).  My mom would always joke that Eva had a full-time job as her work schedule would last 25-30 hours a week, on average.  It was hard seeing her frustrated, but we stuck with the program.  She slowly learned basic sign language and worked with the PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to organize her daily activities.

On one of her follow-up appointments with Dr. Filipek, the doctor tried to get Eva to look in her eyes. This was no easy task. However, Filipek would not give up and finally Eva gave in.  Eva looked in Dr. Filipek’s eyes for a brief second, and cracked a big smile—the first smile in a year. I almost fell out of my chair. Dr. Filipek whipped around and looked me square in the eyes and said, “There IS a little girl in there wanting to get out. It is OUR job to help her.” That was all the fuel I needed to start my quest to find a way to help Eva overcome autism.

The Class

It was by chance that I met Professor Olga Solomon and found that USC had a wide variety of research interests in helping those with ASD. That chance came in September 2009 in the form of an email forwarded to the Electrical Engineering Department at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering where I study. That email was titled: “SEMINAR: Enhancing and Accelerating the Pace of Autism Research and Treatment: The Promise of Developing Innovative Technology by Matthew Goodwin.” When I received that email, I did a double take. It was addressed to my USC account and it said the word “autism.” I thought by accident I had gotten one of my many autism related newsletters or therapist’s emails in the wrong account for some reason.  But when I read it for the third time, I realized that yes, there was a scientist coming to USC to speak about integrating engineering techniques into research on autism.  I thought it so strange and beautiful. I had to go.

At the end of this eye-opening seminar, Dr. Solomon announced that she would teach a class in the Spring 2010 semester titled “Innovative Technology for Autism Spectrum Disorders” funded by Autism Speaks. The course would unite the fields of engineering, occupational science, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology to give a full view of the technological advances in the world of ASD.  Every week, the students would read articles about ASD science and technology, blog about the readings, and invite the authors to present their research in the class. The course was too good to be true.  I believe I was the first person to sign up.

The students came from a mix of backgrounds, including engineering, computer science, and occupational therapists.  I struggled with being open about the fact that I was a mom of a daughter with autism.  When it was my turn, I blurted it out.  This was the first time I had ever told people I did not know about Eva’s autism and it was therapeutic. This small action opened the door for me to use my engineering background coupled with the knowledge that comes with being a parent of a child with ASD. I was so happy; I was not embarrassed anymore. I was here because of my unique experience and my desire to help and to find answers and solutions.

The first few weeks were dedicated to making sure the students had a strong foothold in what ASD was and what current methods exist to aid those with autism. The first speaker was Portia Iverson and we read about her experiences raising her son with autism through an excerpt from her book “Strange Son.” I was so touched by the passage that I wrote in my blog that I was going to buy the book and finish reading it.. The class day came and I received the most touching gift: Dr. Solomon obtained a copy of the book and had Portia sign it for me personally. I read the book in two days.

Each week following the first, the class had wonderful speakers; these included my favorites: Shri Narayanan – a well known Electrical Engineer who deals with speech and signal processing techniques, Skip Rizzo – a Virtual Reality (VR) guru, and Gillian Hayes, who works in pervasive computing for ASD.  After each talk, I made every effort to speak with the lecturers in order to ask questions and broaden my knowledge. Most importantly, I wanted to say “thank you” and shake their hands. I had such an overwhelming feeling that in order to solve the puzzle of autism, every approach, story, and effort was an important  piece to be considered in the autism equation.

At the end of the semester we worked in teams with mixed backgrounds to develop an innovative idea to apply to the field of autism. My group’s project was to develop an interactive VR and pervasive computing program to help diagnose children with autism living in rural areas where there are not enough resources or doctors on-site to make a diagnosis. We collectively wrote a grant proposal which, if accepted and funded, could be applied to disaster areas like that of Hurricane Katrina or Haiti. Using technology such as video and wireless sensors to gather data (including heart rate, sound, and body movement), the VR system could be set up in a remote area and used by a doctor or trained therapist at another location to make an initial assessment for a child suspected of having autism.  This, in turn, would allow that child to receive an accurate diagnosis, including a recommendation for therapy or medical attention as needed. Not all families are as lucky as I was to live in an area with access to top doctors, therapists, and research facilities dedicated to autism. Hopefully, with a portable system like the one proposed, costs, such as travel expenses and doctor fees, can be greatly reduced and children suspected of having ASD can receive effective treatment quickly.

Looking Forward

Now that the class is over, I can look back and confidently say I am so grateful for the experience and connections I have made though the semester.  The autism technology course has opened a whole new world for me. I signed up for the class because it intrigued me for the obvious reasons.  I wanted to know more about autism and what was out there that could possibly help heal my daughter.  What Dr. Solomon’s course gave me was a basic, yet solid understanding of autism and a way in which I could personally contribute my engineering skills and unique background to forming innovative technologies to improve the lives of individuals with ASD.  Looking forward, I would love to continue to further my research in ASD technologies using both my insight as an engineer and a mom of a child with autism.

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