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Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative

The limitless applications of technology have paved the way for groundbreaking developments in how science can diagnose, research, and treat autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The autism community has benefited from advancements in education, rehabilitative, data accumulation, telecommunication, and assistive technologies.1 Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) Initiative is utilizing scientific breakthroughs to make significant contributions to the lives of people affected by ASD. The ITA is bringing useful products to the market for the diagnosis and treatment of ASD and also making learning and the activities of daily life easier for individuals with ASD.2 The seemingly infinite applications of technology gives those with autism and their families more options and more hope than ever. The improving quality of technology is affecting every field working towards the common goal of treating, researching, and preventing ASD. To narrow the grand scope of technology’s influence on autism, which is evident in nearly every research oriented article published by the National Autism Network, this article will focus on the Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative’s past achievements and its influence on grooming society’s technological pioneers with the goal of designing new technologies to improve the lives for those with ASD.

Past Accomplishment of ITA
The grants awarded by the ITA over the years have led to pioneering studies centering on ASD. The Innovative Technology for Autism program was founded in 2002 by Portia Iversen, a co-founder of Cure Autism Now (CAN).3 The scope of the initiative expanded in 2006 as part of Cure Autism Now’s merger with Autism Speaks.4 In 2011, an interesting study supported by the ITA examined the speech of children with autism. Children with autism are often thought to have a monotone or robotic voice that lacks the “normal ‘prosody’ or melody of up and down intonations that we use to express ourselves.”5 Prosody examines how the different aspects of speech such as rhythm, stress, intonation, tempo, and other features related to speech contribute to a speaker’s meaning.6 The study examined speech samples of 83 children (41 with ASD, 42 controls) for speech abnormalities with the goal of developing “a speech spectrum-based measure that will reliably discriminate between children with ASD and children with normal development.”7 The study’s results indicate that “speech abnormalities in ASD are reflected in its spectral content and pitch variability. This variability could imply abnormal processing of auditory feedback or elevated noise and instability in the mechanisms that control pitch. The current results are a first step toward developing speech spectrum-based bio-markers for early diagnosis of ASD.”7 Support from the ITA is helping to fund studies like these that are setting the foundation for a lasting impact on how clinicians are able to identify and treat autism.

Another technological advancement achieved with help from the ITA is the development of a new system for using video recording to store data for later evaluation by physicians. According to Dr. Gregory Abowd, the creator of the Autism Research Group at the Georgia Institute of Technology, “[v]ideotaping allowed us to replay events and evaluate behaviors. Studying actual data instead of relying on memory gave us more accurate information.”8 Although video recording individuals with behavioral issues for evaluation is not a new concept, the Behavior Imaging Capture technology is quite innovative. B.I. Capture technology was partially developed with Innovative Technology for Autism funding.9 Behavior Imaging refers “to the capture, analysis, and secure review of a person’s behavior information via video and other digital electronic means.”10 The technology permits parents, teachers, or physicians to start recording an individual’s behavior with the push of a button. The recorded blocks can then be evaluated to inspect the events leading up to the behavior and the reaction to the behavior in a much more efficient and less time consuming manner.11 A five month study concluded that the “[u]se of video capture technology… resulted in a significant 43.7% reduction of errors in recording incidents.”12 The technology allows for the capture and online storage and sharing of videos to document a child’s behavior and progress at home, school, or therapy sessions.13 In the future, Behavior Imaging technology can strengthen and expedite data collection techniques in the fields of education, healthcare, and research.14

In 2007, a study conducted at Vanderbilt University focused on using robotic technology to monitor affective cues in children with ASD. Affective cues, otherwise known as affective states, are essentially human emotions and motivations.15 In this case, the affective cues being measured are liking, anxiety, and engagement.15 This Today Show Segment demonstrates how the child interacts with the robot, which uses physiological sensors detect affective cues by measuring the child’s heart rate, blink rate, sweating, and muscle twitching. In this instance, the physiological sensors are strapped to the subject’s body as they played the classic video game Pong. The robot is able to infer if the current task has become too predictable by interpreting the subjects’ physiological signals and is able to adjust the game’s degree of difficulty accordingly. The study found that the human-robot interaction yielded the correct assumption of affective cues approximately 83% of the time.15 The authors of this fascinating study conclude “[a] robot that is capable of detecting and responding to affective cues could help the children with ASD explore the social interaction dynamics in a gradual and adaptive manner.”15 This is the first study to utilize human-robot interaction with the goal of autism intervention and the first experiment to measure the affective states of children with ASD via physiology-based affect recognition technique.15

Education and ITA
The Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative is not only focused on the development of new technologies for individuals with autism, but is also focused on educating those who will work with and work to develop innovative technologies to benefit those with autism. The ITA 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.”16 ITA has funded technologically themed courses at prestigious universities such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC, MIT, and Georgia Tech, which was co-taught by Dr. Gregory Abowd.17 The courses rotate throughout the country, but all share a common “emphasis on what it’s like to have autism from the perspective of affected individuals.”17 Currently, there are no funded ITA courses available. The ITA is also credited with introducing the 2011 student design competition known as Autism Connects, which was a contest in which 126 ideas were submitted with the overall goal of creating “technology design ideas for individuals with autism to better connect with the world around them, and to allow individuals who do not have autism to better understand and connect with those who do.”18 The competition’s jury selected the Gobug, an interactive toy with the purpose of facilitating an inclusive learning experience for children with ASD, as the winner.

The Innovative Technology for Autism program facilitates the development of technology to assist individuals with autism. Just recently, the first annual international conference on innovative technologies for autism, entitled “Technologies for Autism: Tools, Trends, and Testimonials”, occurred in Valencia, Spain.19 The program’s highlights included presentations on technology in emerging countries, programs for screening, diagnosis, and early intervention, educational programs, and programs designed to promote specific skills for people with ASD.20 Through the ITA, researchers have been able to enhance existing technologies, develop new technologies, and reduce the costs of intervention. There are technologies being developed around the world that are allowing those with autism to function better than ever before. Technologies like iPads, MRI, video games, and even robots are aiding researchers and developers to improve the quality of life for individuals on the autism spectrum.