Technology is helping children with Autism Spectrum Disorder break through communication barriers and social isolation. But even as new tools come to the forefront, autism technology needs remain unfulfilled.
Twenty-plus years ago, the idea that autistic children could use computers was viewed more as an impediment than a promise. But today’s machine learning technologies, wearable devices and smartphones have “made an amazing difference in the lives of so many children with autism” and complex communication needs, said Marie Duggan, founder of the non-profit Technology for Autism Now.
“Without technology and what technology has been able to provide to these kids, I believe they are a very misunderstood group of individuals,” she told Techtonics.
Autistic children struggle with communication and social interaction, often needing the aid of flash cards to understand what is being said or conveyed emotionally. In some cases, they have to carry dedicated communication devices that cost thousands of dollars.
Using the same smart devices their peers use minimizes social stigma, said Duggan, and helps autistic kids get “a better education” and a “chance to be more functional young adults when they graduate high school.”
“There is an enormous amount of unmet needs that can be addressed through digital technologies,” said Stanford University’s Dennis Wall, a pediatrician and principle investigator for the Autism Glass Project, a collaboration between Google and Stanford University.
U.S. families wait 13-18 months to get an autism diagnosis. During that time, “the kids who are waiting on these lists are waiting during periods when therapy has a big impact,” he said in an interview.
This speaks of a “numerical disconnect between the number of clinical practitioners who provide things like diagnostic services and therapeutic intervention and the number of individuals who actually need those therapies,” he said. “And that disconnect … is just growing over time.”
Wall believes technology can address this issue and others, such as clinical standards, and benchmark data that define therapeutic intervention. And he aims to use Autism Glass to streamline and accelerate diagnosis to reach more people and provide therapeutic intervention outside the clinic.
Using a mobile app to collect information, researchers can “act on those data very quickly, far faster than what happens in terms of the time within a clinical diagnostic center today,” he said.
“The Glass is actually worn by the children,” he explained. “They look out to the world around them, they find faces and convert those faces into data that can in turn be converted into an emotion and that emotion is fed back to the child instantaneously. And so rather than leveraging flashcards, they’re working within their own natural environment to increasingly understand what faces are telling them.”
The program, still in development, is being tested in several homes to measure gains in social understanding.
“What we’ve learned so far,” said Wall, “is that it functions very robustly in two different ways. One is the children will wear it … and number two is that the emotional feedback that they’re getting from the device is teaching them quite a bit more about their social surroundings, and they have the ability to … learn on their own.”
This is a far cry from when Duggan’s son was first diagnosed with autism – 26 years ago. At the time, she was told autistic children don’t use computers and that she needed to create communication tools to help her child process the spoken language that is often “transient” for autistic children.
“The only thing that he related to were pictures,” she said. “So I created everything visual for him. Everything I taught him had to be done visual and had to be broken down into little steps, which meant I had to create a picture for every single step. And once he learned it, then he learned the task.”
As the child’s vocabulary expanded, so did the flash cards. The process became cumbersome, time-consuming and frustrating for both teacher and student.
That is a “very limited” approach, said Wall, and one that cannot be done at scale. And flash card messages “don’t have the inherent variability that exists in the natural world that the kid lives in. In other words, not every happy face looks the same.”
To simplify the process, Technology for Autism Now, which looks for innovative solutions to help the autism community, developed AutiKnow, an app for non-verbal children who need visual support to understand the spoken language. The app lets teachers take pictures that go into the child’s library on their device and are available on demand.
Duggan said technology firms can do more and play a huge role in providing smart devices and home monitoring systems, and jobs to autistic children who come of age – an important step toward ending social isolation. But first, they must talk with parents of autistic children to understand their needs because not all available technologies are designed with an understanding of autism therapies and goals.
But the future is likely to be brighter. Wall hopes mobile, wearable devices, machine learning, and virtual and augmented reality technologies will facilitate learning and provide therapeutic intervention outside the clinic, not just for autism, but for other developmental conditions as well.