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Innovative Technology for Autism Class Concludes Semester at University of Southern California

June 24, 2010

Children are increasingly growing up in a world where technologies mediate and organize how they communicate, learn and play. For individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), their families and the clinicians who serve them, the ubiquitous presence of technology offers a unique opportunity to marshal new resources for participation and engagement in everyday life.

This spring, graduate students at the University of Southern California (USC) had an opportunity to learn about autism and to develop novel technologies designed to meet the needs of individuals with autism by enrolling in an Engineering Special Topics course at USC's Viterbi School of Engineering. The course, "Innovative Technology for Autism Spectrum Disorders," was sponsored by Autism Speaks. and taught by Olga Solomon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Research in the Division of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy at USC and a member of the steering committee for Autism Speaks' Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative.

Twelve graduate studentsattended 3 hour-long weekly seminars and worked in interdisciplinary teams on their group projects to develop a technology to improve communication and other aspects of everyday life for individuals with autism and their families. Several times during the semester distinguished guest speakers shared their expertise with the students. The guest speakers included Sharon Cermak, Ed.D. (USC), David Feil-Seifer (Ph.D. candidate, USC), Matthew Goodwin, Ph.D. (MIT), Gillian Hayes, Ph.D. (UC Irvine), Mary Lawlor, Sci.D. (USC) and Portia Iversen (Descartes Foundation).

At the end of the semester, Albert (Skip) Rizzo, Ph.D. and Shri Narayanan, Ph.D. (both of USC) served as referees for the in-class project where three groups presented their original designs in the form of a grant proposal. The three projects the students developed were to develop an iPhone application for collaborative storytelling about real life experiences with family members and peers; to create a sophisticated virtual reality internet-based network to deliver intervention and assessment services to those living in remote geographical areas; and to use existing bio-sensing wireless technologies in occupational therapy settings. All three projects received detailed conceptual and programmatic feedback from the referees, and all were highly scored.

The goal of the course was to provide students with an understanding of autism as a foundation for future research, for development of technologies for ASD, and for their use in clinical practice. Bringing together graduate students in Engineering and Computer Science and in Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy provided students with an experience of interdisciplinary collaboration that they will be able to build upon in their future careers.

“My objectives were for the students to become familiar with the major research directions and most current theories of ASD and to gain an appreciation of how ASD impacts personal experience and family life,” explained Dr. Solomon. “We focused on the basic issues underlying the use of technology for ASD and practicing implementation of original ideas in designing an innovative technology for ASD. In the process, the students hopefully gained an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of technology for ASD, and can use this to direct future work in the field.”

Echoing Dr. Solomon's comments, Electrical Engineering Ph.D. student Susan Schober, herself the mother of a three year-old-daughter with autism, confirmed that taking the course really drew her into a new professional direction. “I signed up for the class because it intrigued me for the obvious reasons. Now I would love to make this my career.” To read a blog about her personal experiences in the class, click here.

ITA courses such as the one taught at USC capture innovative thinking and problem solving from a fresh pool of future innovators, raise disability awareness among talented students, and promote interest in careers with an autism and disability focus. In keeping with Autism Speaks' ongoing strategy to bring new talent into the field of autism, it is anticipated that each ITA course will further contribute to the development of curricula that can be adopted by other colleges and universities, cultivating the interest of new students, as well as faculty in other technology-related fields. Find more information on past ITA courses here.