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New Technology Enhances Autism Research and Therapy

Posted by Shanise Owens, project manager for Autism Speaks Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE)

Some pretty amazing little gadgets are bringing new insights into how children respond to therapy and how we can improve our methods to really make a difference in the homes of our families.

One intriguing tool is a sensory wrist band that collects information on a person’s movement, body temperature and other internal and physical  responses. Researchers at Boston's Northeastern University and New York's Center for Discovery have been using it to follow what’s happening inside a child with autism in the hours and minutes before he or she acts out in a classroom. This is powerful information that can help guide a teacher in anticipating – or better, avoiding – meltdowns. It also provides insights for behavioral therapists working with a child to better deal with the sensory issues and frustrations that lead to overload.

This is just one of the impressive gadgets I learned about when attending a recent talk – “Computational Behavioral Science: Developing Innovative Technology to Enhance Research and Practice in Autism Spectrum Disorder” – by Matthew Goodwin, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Dr. Goodwin explained the challenges researchers face when studying the effectiveness of behavioral therapies. After all, every individual with autism presents with unique symptoms, strengths and distinct behaviors. His research interests focus ways to overcome these challenges through new technologies. In particular, he’s interested in gathering objective information on changes in behavior related to autism interventions.

Already, his research team has used the sensor wrist band to better understand what triggers challenging classroom behaviors such as self-injury, tantrums, wandering, destructiveness and aggression. The researchers share this information with the children’s teachers and therapists. The payoff: A better learning environment and social experience for everyone.    

Candid camera in the home
Dr. Goodwin’s “Speechome Project” involves using a kind of home candid camera in the home to gain insights into how to help non-verbal children with autism build language. It is a collaboration involving researchers at MIT, Northeastern University and the University of Connecticut.

MIT engineers developed a sophisticated audio-video recorder that looks like a large hanging lamp. (See image at left.) It captures a panorama of home activity that allows the MIT team to track how nonverbal children with autism communicate their desires in their home environment.

What kind of interactions encourage them to use speech or some form of vocal communication? What interferes?

Already, this study is providing glimpses into the social cues – verbal and nonverbal – that contribute to language development in children with autism.  

I came away from Dr. Goodwin’s lecture excited about the potential for technology to improve research in natural environments such as home and school. These studies, in turn, promise to pave the way for new and more effective interventions for children and adults with autism.

Autism Speaks has long had a special interest in harnessing technology to help individuals with autism live more fulfilling lives. Please see this website’s Innovative Technology in Autism page and our Autism Apps page.

In addition, Autism Speaks is currently funding a number of related studies. Here are a few of particular interest:

* Pragmatic language and social-emotional processing in autism, fragile X, and the FMR1 premutation

* Making words meet: Using computerized feedback to facilitate word combinations in children with ASD

* Innovative technology for mapping social engagement in children with autism: Adaptive physiological profiling in real time

* Neural correlates of social exchange and valuation in autism

* Telemetric assessment of movement stereotypy in children with ASD