The Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) Initiative has awarded more than $400,000 in new research grants to develop innovative assistive, educational, therapeutic, and diagnostic technologies for persons with autism.
2011 saw a new approach for Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism(ITA) Initiative with the running of a student design competition called Autism Connects. The design brief was pretty straight forward: to create technology design ideas for individuals with autism to better connect with the world around them, and to allow individuals who do not have autism to better understand and connect with those who do.
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Young and old, technology is never far from us. It enables our communication and helps us grow and maintain social relationships. For years Autism Speaks has promoted the research of technologies to support children and adults with ASD, whether that is through the awarding of grants or by supporting research-networking events.
2011 saw a new approach for Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) initiative with the running of a student design competition called Autism Connects. The design brief was pretty straight forward: to create technology design ideas for individuals with autism to better connect with the world around them, and to allow individuals who do not have autism to better understand and connect with those who do.
Autism Connects was a partnership between Autism Speaks, Core 77 and jovoto. In total there were 126 design ideas submitted from over 30 countries. The popularity of the competition really shows the passion and interest there is for autism around the world and how we can engage young professionals to use their burgeoning skills to make a difference in the lives of people with ASD and their families.
The submitted ideas were judged by a panel of international experts on ASD, including Temple Grandin and John Robison. The jury rated the best design and first prize to Gobug, by Greg Katz and Tom Rim from the University of Illinois College of Fine and Applied Arts Industrial Design.
“Gobug is designed to move around on a ground surface at the control of the users. Up to two or three children can play with the toy simultaneously. Each user takes ownership of one controller. These controllers work in conjunction; each user points his/her remote in a direction, and the Gobug moves in the combined direction of the active controllers” said Greg Katz and Tom Rim.
When asked how the team came upon this original idea, Greg Katz said, “We took this on from a user-centered design perspective. The focus was 100% on the person we were designing for. We designed through an iterative process, constantly sketching ideas and fine tuning them in to workable concepts. The outcome was Gobug.”
In second place was WEsync, which was designed by Noel Cunningham from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Md.
“weSYNC is an application for the iPad, iPhone, and Web, that creates a specialized profile for the autistic individual by gathering knowledge from each caregiver and establishing a centralized location where it can be accessed and edited by everyone. Establishing a dialogue among doctors, therapists, teachers and parents allows them to share information and reinforce oneanother’s efforts.”
In third place was another idea from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore designed by Cameron Zotter whose idea is called Visual Watch. The watch is both a time management and picture exchange communication system (PECS) tool designed specifically for people with ASD.
The three prize winners were invited to this week’s International Meeting for Autism Research to present their designs in person at the technology demonstration on Friday. Autism Speaks’ Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., will be announcing the winners and celebrating their innovations on Friday at the event.
The breadth and wealth of these students’ ideas reflects the technology and autism field in general. All of the designs that were submitted had considered and detailed ways of using technology to aid the lives of people with ASD or those who love and support them. The potential of these ideas to make a difference for families is vast. Our next challenge is how we get these concepts and ideas out into the real world and we’d be interested to hear your ideas on how to achieve that.
Through this competition Autism Speaks has encouraged a new community of young people to think about ASD. Our hope is that Greg, Tim, Noel, and Cameron will take this experience into their working lives and have autism close to their thoughts when they are planning their future projects.
Lastly, none of this could have been possible without our fantastic ITA committee members, who are chaired by Drs. Katherina Boser and Matthew Goodwin. Also, enormous thanks to our judges and the community experts who guided the students’ design ideas to help make them as good as they turned out to be.
You can find out more about the three Jury Prize winners and the six Community Prize winners here.
A recent study reports that a quick brain scan could be used to screen for autism. The study, from senior author Declan Murphy, Ph.D., of Kings’ College London, has garnered considerable attention from the media for its potential to change the way we identify autism spectrum disorders (ASD). There is, however, another interesting aspect to this story. The investigators borrowed methods from a field of computer science and engineering called machine learning. These tools are most effective in finding patterns in sets of data that are large and heterogeneous for use in classification. Using a set of five measurements that are based on structural features of the human brain, the authors found that different patterns emerged for adults with autism when compared with typically-developing adults and also adults with ADHD. Importantly, no single brain region or feature alone was able to discriminate between the groups. When considered together, however, these features were selective approximately 90% of the time.
Machine learning techniques are also being used to classify symptoms in the hope of identifying meaningful subtypes of autism that can lead to tailored effective treatments. Curtis Jensen, a computer science engineer in San Diego has applied these techniques to the ARI database of symptoms from over 40,000 parent surveys. to identify symptom clusters that suggest possible relationships between symptoms that may be useful for identifying subtypes of autism. According to Jensen, the clusters “make sense”. For example, those subjects that score high in the fear or anxiety clusters tend to have lower intellectual disability. Similarly, although challenges with language communication are a defining feature of ASD, the obsessive-compulsive cluster seems to experience the least language difficulty.
Machine learning methods are not alone among the computer science tools used to benefit autism. For many years, the Interactive Technology for Autism (ITA) initiative from Autism Speaks, brought together researchers with expertise in computer science and engineering to seek solutions to problems faced in autism. Now, through a $10 million initiative from the National Science Foundation, researchers will combine computer vision, speech analysis and wireless physiological measurements to assist with early diagnosis and behavioral shaping. Collaborators at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Southern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will be aiming these powerful tools at social engagement and other behaviors. By analyzing video collected in clinic visits, at schools and also at home, the group hopes to develop tools for screening autism and evaluating the effects of therapy.
Several of the principal investigators involved in the recently awarded NSF grant are long standing members of the ITA steering committee. According to ITA co-chair and Associate Director of the NSF grant, “Organizations like Autism Speaks play a vital role in funding pilot investigations needed to demonstrate scientific feasibility of innovative approaches that lead to larger-scale, federally-sponsored research programs”. Stay tuned as we learn more from the new field of Computational Behavioral Science.