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Autism Connects

Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative (ITA) has teamed up with design network Core77 to produce “Autism Connects,” Core77 to produce “Autism Connects,” a student technology and design competition around the themes of autism and communication. The purpose of our competition is to encourage design students to develop technology solutions that can help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to better connect with the world around them, and to allow individuals who do not have ASD to better understand and connect with those who do.

Running from January 2 through March 31, the competition is hosted on Core77’s recently-launched Design Arena open innovation platform, powered by Core77’s technology partner Jovoto. It is an international design competition that is open to all students (college, post-grad, and high school).

To participate in this contest, please click here.

We’ve got an incredible jury of world-renowned designers and experts, including Yves Behar, principal of Fuse Project; Lisa Strausfeld, partner of Pentagram; Temple Grandin, well-known autism author and researcher; Portia Iversen, autism advocate and author of “A Strange Son;” Dan Feshbach, co-founder of TeachTown, as well as several others. Dozens of autism liaisons from the community will provide participants with expert feedback and advice throughout the duration of the competition in order to make this as educational and interactive as possible.

The first prize is $5000, with the top three entries receiving a travel stipend to present their ideas at next May’s IMFAR Conference (International Meeting for Autism Research) in San Diego.

There has already been enormous interest around the Autism Connects Technology & Design Competition. Recently, Core77’s Allan Chochinov sat down with ITA members Sophia Colamarino, Katharina Boser and Matthew Goodwin to talk about the motivations behind opening up to the greater design community, about their hopes and dreams for the competition outcomes, and to get some advice for designers who want to contribute to this growing, exciting field.

Allan Chochnikov: What were some of the motivations of ITA in engaging the greater design community?

Katharina Boser: We are very excited to be considering the design community’s input in technology applications for people with autism. Our Innovative Technology for Autism initiative has been around for at least 10 years. Most of our ITA steering committee members and network consist of either psychologists and clinicians with an expertise in autism (its therapy and diagnosis) or computer scientists and human computer interaction (HCI) experts. We have never had input from designers regarding how therapies can strive for better ‘design’ whether high or low technology is engaged. Great designs paired with innovative technologies have the potential to open powerful new doors to a more connected world for a person with autism.

Autism has two specific underlying impairments that designers are particularly good at thinking about. One is that people with ASD are not motivated by the same things that motivate the rest of us (social factors), and the second is that people with ASD have incredible sensory sensitivities (e.g., to touch, taste, smell, audition and vision) that can be so extreme as to severely impair daily life and experience. Design involves primarily being good at engaging others by means of a variety of their senses and also understanding people’s underlying motivation for engagement. Both of these factors influence the ability to engage and connect or communicate with others. I see the design world contributing something very crucial to the issue of finding new ways to motivate communication and addressing a range of different sensory sensitivities through the totality of consideration of the physical experience, a practice which designers undertake regularly in the practice of their profession.

Matthew Goodwin: I wanted to add that we’re seeking to encourage out of the box thinking by inviting fresh perspectives from a community with different backgrounds, methods, and styles of solving a problem. The complexity of autism is overwhelming scientifically. Designers are comfortable with complexity, and often produce elegantly simple solutions to hard problems. ITA is obviously also interested in capitalizing on technology as a way to better study, understand and support those affected by autism. A design competition that takes place over the internet is exactly the kind of technology usage we applaud. The “openness” of the competition is also appealing as it invites transparency, collaborative thinking, and opportunities for flexibility and enhancement of an idea. Many of us working in the field are also entrenched in our own paradigms; what we think is impossible may in fact be attainable through a fresh and different perspective.

Sophia Colamarino: The goal of the ITA is to encourage effective and inspired technology that enhances the pace of autism research and treatment. We’ve always promoted collaboration among technologists, designers, engineers, and various stakeholders in the autism community, but we realized we’ve primarily gone about this by working through the academic community.  For instance, we’ve funded some great ITA classes at several universities around the country as well as many academic research grants.  This time we wanted to do something different, so we specifically chose to run this competition through a design community site to engage an entirely new community of talent that has not previously been working on autism.

AC: Talk to us about the level of “completeness” of the entries. I mean, a lot of the videos we link to in the brief are finished working products or prototypes, but this competition also invites design “concepts.” How would you characterize what that means in terms of design deliverables?

MG: Every product begins with an idea and undergoes many changes. Nearly all the technology examples we’ve provided started with a sketch on a napkin, underwent numerous revisions after talking with others, and were built in a variety of ways before settling on a finished product. We invite entries at all levels of the design process. Concepts are especially welcome, and designers should not feel confined to actually producing a prototype or tangible product. We can’t build what we can’t imagine.

KB: We also hope to foster collaboration on design projects by getting different experts to contribute their knowledge to the entrants’ concepts through the platform of the open design competition. We certainly welcome ideas that come in at all levels.

AC: So you don’t need to be on a team of grad students working on a project that is already funded to enter a design!?

KB: Absolutely not. We want the fresh ideas, not necessarily the ones that have all the background knowledge in this area. A ‘blank slate’ or ‘tabula rasa’ with respect to background of autism technology is not a bad thing to bring to the table here; we believe a new perspective is what’s needed to drive the field forward in terms of what is missing with current products. We would love for our student designers to be thinking not only of the cost and feasibility of their design but also of ease of usability for both the parent/therapist as well as the child.

MG: We anticipate that some of the best ideas will be low-tech and come from non-academics. However, as per the competition rules, it is important that you be a registered student (have a .edu email address).

AC: What are some of the iconic examples you’ve seen over the years having to do with technology and autism, both and low- and high-tech?

MG: Some of the high-tech examples include virtual reality, social robots, automated facial recognition detection and wearable sensors that record physiological functioning. Low-tech examples include picture-exchange systems, social stories and sequencing of events on a calendar.

KB: Actually, a wonderful low-tech design idea was submitted to me by a parent of a child with autism. Since it’s a device designed to aide language communication ‘on the go,’ she purposefully made it a device that would not require batteries or electricity because she worried about this device losing charge. Her name is Amy Miller, and she is still looking for a ‘partner’ to take this idea further, so I can’t divulge details here but perhaps a student participant who reads this interview might want to look her up on the competition site, which I’ve invited her to join as an ‘expert-liaison’. Some of the best high-tech ideas involve mobile devices of course. One design developed by Gillian Hayes at UCSD and Luanne Hunt was shown at this year’s IMFAR conference and involved a social compass for kids with ASD. This mobile application would use GPS to recognize social ‘partners’ and then cue the user regarding potential conversation topics, closeness of stance, as well as the necessity to ‘close’ the conversation appropriately. We hope that student designers will take advantage of their ability to engage with Dr. Hayes as well as the many other liaisons on the site to get feedback on their ideas.

  1. January 12, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I am very excited about this development. Wonderful work

  1. May 5, 2011 at 7:45 pm

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