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Calls to Action

Innovative Technology Helps to Advance Research and Treatment of Autism

August 06, 2008

The goal of Autism Speaks' Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) initiative is to facilitate the development of new technology to assist individuals with autism, clinicians and behavioral support staff, as well as the variety of researchers in the clinical, education and technology related fields. Technology has great potential in its ability to serve each of these users in unique ways. From improvements

in learning and daily life skills for individuals with autism, benefits in the ability to teach, treat or document progress for their caregivers and finally the development of a better understanding of the complexities of the disorder for researchers in both academic and technology domains.

ITA supports interdisciplinary project teams, encouraging the inclusion of clinical researchers with technology design teams so that the technology experts can better understand the users of their devices. ITA's funding of internship programs, classes, competitions and interdisciplinary conferences serves to encourage and motivate not only young design talent but also established researchers not familiar with autism. The ultimate goal is for research and design (R & D) engineers and computing experts to begin investigating and designing more specifically for the needs of people impacted by autism.

ITA focuses on technologies geared toward not only improving early detection and assessment but also to treat a variety of known impairments in autism, including social and functional communication, speech-language and dialogue, memory, self management, sensory integration, joint-attention and eye gaze. Please visit the ITA website for further details of the main categories of technology that are funded and details on current and previously funded research at

A recently published article entitled "Enhancing and accelerating the pace of autism research and treatment: The promise of developing innovative technology" in the June 2008 issue of Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities provides an excellent overview of the current state of the field. Written by Matthew S. Goodwin, Ph.D., Director of Clinical Research at the MIT Media Lab and Vice-Chair of the Autism Speaks ITA Initiative, the article grew out of his discussions with more than 30 members of the autism and technology community attending the 2007 International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in Seattle. Goodwin highlights the many technologies emerging in the field, details how they can be used to enhance and accelerate the pace of autism research and treatment, and suggests that entities such as ITA are ideally suited to support these burgeoning efforts.

Some of the innovative technologies highlighted include the Internet; audio and video recorders; electronic sensing technology; computer architecture, hardware, and software; virtual reality; and robotics. It is suggested that these technologies, alone or in conjunction, can be used beneficially in a number of critical areas affecting individuals with autism, their families, and the professionals who support them. These technologies serve to improve the lives of people with autism by: enabling access to resources, enhancing assessment efforts, promoting interventions, reducing the cost of treatment, and facilitating research recruitment and implementation, all of which can translate into better understanding, support, and treatment of persons affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders.

ITA committee members recently attended the 7th International conference on Interaction Design for Children (IDC) at Northwestern University in Chicago. For the full program please visit Conference sponsors included Autism Speaks as well as NSF, Northwestern University, Mattel, Think/Thing, CTSB and Spencer. The conference goal was to better understand children's needs and how to design specifically for them and their developmental requirements. This was accomplished by gathering the leading minds in the field of interaction design and helping the attendees to stop thinking of "children" as a homogeneous group but include specifically those with special needs. Conference participants, consisting of computer engineers, psychologists and R&D experts, were encouraged to design specifically for children's unique developmental requirements and think of a diversification of applications for technology by the imperative: "Think Outside the Toybox". Justine Cassell, a current Autism Speaks ITA program grantee, whose groundbreaking research designing robotic ‘virtual peers' to encourage narrative dialogue in children with autism served as the conference chair (

The highlight for those interested in autism was a pre-conference workshop "Designing for children with special needs" in which several of ITA's current and previously funded researchers presented their AS-sponsored research. This included research on computerized language training for individuals with autism by Felicia Hurewitz of Drexel University and Katherine Beals of Autism Language Therapies (visit and a project using toy sensors that can aid in the assessment of a child's cognitive and social development by Tracy Westeyn, Julie Kientz, Thad Starner and ITA's Gregory Abowd from the Georgia Institute of Technology (see Gillian Hayes, also a currently funded ITA researcher and her colleague Andrea Tartaro organized and facilitated the workshop discussion regarding designing for students with special needs. Dr. Hayes is currently investigating technology for visual schedules to improve the ability of individuals with autism to understand, structure and predict activities.

One exciting project, presented as a poster, has been developed by Helma van Rijn of Delft University in the Netherlands. Her LINKX design involves blocks that when connected to objects will say the objects' name (using pre-recorded caregiver speech) and connect to form "speech-o-grams". She has been testing her design with children with autism (aged 3-5) and found improvements in early vocabulary development (for details visit

Other relevant presentations included those by Edith Ackermann of MIT's media center and Lego; Kathleen Alfano director of the play laboratory at Fisher Price; New York Times Journalist and author of "Into the Minds of Babes" Lisa Guernsey; James Gee of Arizona State University; Bill Shribner of WGBH Boston; and Dan Anderson of University of Massachusetts, Amherst. These technology experts contributed to our understanding of the role of technology in a child's learning environment by speaking about responsible design for educating children, the positive and detrimental aspects of "screens" (TV and video) and universal design considerations to address all types of learners' needs.

Goodwin, MS (2008). Enhancing and accelerating the pace of autism research and treatment: The promise of developing innovative technology. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 23(2), 125-128.

View a PDF of this article here.