Hacking Autism and University of Michigan

Tuesday, May 1, 2012 View Comments Autism Speaks

This is a guest blog post from Marc Sirkin, Autism Speaks VP Social Marketing and Online Fundraising.

I first found out about David Chesney's software engineering class at dinner with Donald Brinkman from Microsoft. We were talking about different ways technology is impacting autism, and introduced us via e-mail. I was intrigued by the idea of students spending an entire semester, hacking and developing games for autism therapies using Microsoft Kinect devices. As a geek, this was just too good to be true!

As it turns out, students in EECS481 Software Engineering class worked hard all semester to develop games for kids with autism spectrum disorder in cooperation with Dr. Jackie Kaufman and Mr. Joe Kryza from Mott Children's Hospital.

Chesney and his class started with 15 "pitches" and narrowed the class down into teams, each focused on a stand-alone game. They worked closely with Mott Children's Hospital and autism experts to identify therapeutic benefits like gross motor skills, facial recognition skills, communications and language skills, tools for caregivers and even analytics. Most importantly they "play-tested" each game at various times with children and people on the spectrum and got real time feedback on what was fun, what worked and what needed improvement.

I had a front row seat as the students demo'd games like "Tickle Monster", a game that allows players to quickly recognize facial expressions. There was a "Flying Objects" game designed to help players improve gross motor skills and recognize facial expressions while playing a fast moving and exciting game.

"Hide & Seek" was designed for facial recognition as well as memory, concentration and recognizing positive and negative emotions. The player assumes the role of the "seeker" and walks through a randomly generated 3D "map" to get clues and to find what they are looking for.

"Path" is a game focused on motor skill development and allows players to follow an on-screen "path" with their hands, legs, and head. The game allows for caregivers to adjust the complexity of the "path" and is designed to be used in both the home and in therapy.

The platform team integrated all the games into one, seamless "main menu" that allowed for players to view their stats, earn rewards and badges and was the interface for the analytics and data generated by game players. The team felt that a rewards mechanism was critical to engaging people on the spectrum to provide motivation and to bring together all the various achievements earned by playing the different games.

There was a lot about the day that really blew me away - in particular the overall collaboration and the smart way they approached building useful games for different targeted therapies. Over time, I hope to see these games fleshed out even further and to perhaps even see them become commercialized and available on the XBox/Kinect platforms and into the hands of game players looking for fun, and therapies to help them manage some parts of their autism.

To learn more about autism and technology, get connected to "Hacking Autism" www.hackingautism.org.