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Calls to Action

Innovative Technology for Autism Sponsored Courses

From the beginning, Autism Speaks-funded Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) courses have focused primarily on design principles and production, while also including a sociological aspect that introduces students to the culture of autism as a developmental disability. Subsequent courses have added a focus on the major areas of autism research and the technologies showing the greatest promise in each. Although they rotate around the country, requirements for a final design project, field experience, and participation in interdisciplinary teams continue to be central requirements of the ITA course. In fact, although each ITA course differs in emphasis according to the research interests of the instructor, all courses also share an emphasis on what it's like to have autism from the perspective of affected individuals. This very important topic is expanded in each class to help illustrate the importance of user-centered design and how it must take into account culture, identity, motivation and family; therapist and sibling involvement; and what it takes to get products to be appropriately adapted and used.

Critical to making a difference in the lives of those affected by autism is the continuation of the cycle of researchers developing an interest in innovative technologies for autism, generating product design ideas that can be taken to market, and then partnering with clinicians to test their utility. This is particularly important for older individuals with autism, who may be able to rely on technology for their continued independence. ITA's support of courses at a variety of universities across the country is only part of the initiative's continued efforts to bring creative and talented people from different disciplines into the autism community. We hope for its success in facilitating the continued expansion and application of technology to improving the lives of those living with autism today.

A History of ITA Courses

In the Fall of 2004, the first course on autism and technology, "Topics in Design: Design for Autism", was taught by Daniel Gillette, Ed.M., and product designer David Law at Stanford University. A second course, "Autism, Culture and Design: An Interdisciplinary Design Exploration" was funded by ITA at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2005. This course built on the framework of the pilot class at Stanford, where Mr. Gillette and Mr. Law co-taught a small inter-departmental graduate class of ten students. One group of students created a therapeutic chair with weights for comforting sensory input. Another group devised an interactive speaking device for use in an adult social skills program, and these three students continue to pursue work in the field of autism. Mr. Gillette noted, "What the students enjoyed the most was the connections they made with the people, and the understanding they gained of the people and culture of those affected by autism."

Following the pioneering early courses, in Spring 2007 Gregory Abowd, Ph.D., and colleague Rosa Arriaga, Ph.D., co-taught the "Technology and Autism" ITA course at Georgia Tech University. Showing how powerful exposure to ITA can be, Dr. Abowd's students have since become extremely productive in this field and now even serve as lecturers for our courses, including Gillian Hayes, Ph.D., Julie Kientz, Ph.D., and Khai Truong, Ph.D.

In 2008, the rotating ITA course moved to Northwestern University where Justine Cassell, Ph.D., had established an autism program on how virtual peers can improve narrative language in autism. As a result of Dr. Cassell's course, student Miri Arie and others are continuing to pursue the project on how virtual avatars aid language and communication in children with autism. Andrea Tartaro, another student of Dr. Cassell's, is currently a professor at Union College and provides guest lectures in the ITA courses, continuing to spread the importance of technology and autism in her new position.

Next, in Spring 2009, undergraduates at MIT had the opportunity to learn about autism and develop novel products designed to meet the needs of individuals with autism by enrolling in "Autism Theory & Technology" in the Department of Autism and Communication Technology at MIT. The course was taught by Matthew Goodwin, Ph.D., and co-taught with colleagues Roz Picard, Ph.D., and Cynthia Brazeal, Ph.D. Together, Dr. Goodwin's research in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and data capture of ANS response systems in autism as well as Drs. Picard and Brazeal's background in robotics served as the emphasis of the 2009 course.

Next up in 2009 was Khai Truong, Ph.D., once a student in Dr. Abowd's class at Georgia Tech University and now an assistant professor at University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada. In addition to listening to invited lectures, students in his course,"Autism & Technology", are required to interact with individuals with autism and their families. In fact, Dr. Truong encourages any interested community members to attend the class. "A researcher from a nearby clinic heard about the course and has been attending each week. It's wonderful to have him there because he is a father of a child with Asperger syndrome and he shares his experience and understanding of the problem as well."

Olga Solomon, Ph.D. a professor in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at University of Southern California (USC), brings her own expertise to the 2010 ITA course, "Innovative Technology for Autism Spectrum Disorders". When asked about how students are encouraged to 'break' away from commonly held assumptions about autism she says, "there is a very strong focus in the USC ITA course on dispelling myths and stereotypes, and promoting deep understanding of the personal experience of individuals with autism and their families. The theme is in the use of technology to construct identities and allow people to pursue all possible futures."