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. ITA was created to enhance and accelerate the pace of autism research and treatment by promoting collaboration among designers, engineers, researchers, clinicians, educators, individuals with autism, and their families.
Improving the lives of individuals impacted by autism is a priority for Autism Speaks. The new ITA grants address this goal at a number of levels. To help with day-to-day tasks, two of the new grants will focus on activity planners – tools that help individuals with autism live more independently by providing structured reminders of daily tasks. One team is led by Gillian Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of information and computer science at UC Irvine. Dr. Hayes and her team are focusing on creating both wall-mounted and portable interactive touchscreen computers to enhance the use of visual schedules in school settings for young children with autism. Another team is led by Thomas Keating, Ph.D. at the Eugene Research Institute (ERI). The ERI team is creating graphical self-management software that promotes personal care and household task management for teens with autism transitioning out of school. In addition to enhancing independence in individuals with autism, both of these teams will be looking to incorporate their technologies for tracking tasks and sharing data among caregivers. While these projects focus on different age-groups and settings, ITA will also facilitate sharing and collaboration between the teams, which is likely to spur greater innovation and lead to similar tools for others on the autism spectrum.
In addition to helping individuals with autism structure their day-to-day lives, ITA is committed to enabling new interventions. The newly funded project led by Tamar Weiss, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Haifa University, builds on a previously funded ITA bridge grant that used technology to build an interactive story-telling game to enhance social communication in children with autism. The current project uses sophisticated, interactive tabletop computers (computers that consist of large screens positioned like a table and controlled via touching the tabletop) that encourage groups of children to work together, thereby providing therapeutic social opportunities for children with autism.
While most ITA projects focus on treatment and assistance with daily living, we also fund projects that enable earlier and more accurate diagnosis of autism. This year we will be funding a project led by Brian Roark, Ph.D., a faculty member at the Center for Spoken Language Understanding at the Oregon Health & Science University. This project is developing innovative speech and language technologies to automatically detect characteristic speech patterns in young children with autism. In addition to exploring possible autism-specific speech patterns, this project may also lay the groundwork for developing future automated diagnostic tools that can identify new markers for autism by capturing nuances in behavior that are too subtle or complex for human observers to document.
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