August, 2012:

Cool Technology Being Used with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Recently I was reading in the Northeastern monthly magazine about about Matthew Goodwin, who is an assistant professor with joint appointments in the College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouve College of Health Sciences.  He has studied autsim for almost 20 years, and codirects Northeastern’s (Boston, MA) new doctoral program in Personal Health Informatics.  Goodwin has been doing research with children who have more advanced ASD and is taking the “lab” to them.  Since 30-50%  of children on the autism spectrum are too  severely impacted to comply with being tested in a typical lab setting surrounded by unfamiliar people, working for an undefined period of time and performing tasks they’ve never done before, all of which require tremendous amounts of self-regulation, Goodwin has designed an opportunity to study these children in settings where they are more comfortable and familiar.

“One in 88 children has been diagnosed with autism sprectrum disorder, making the condition more common than childhood cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and spina bifida combined,” reported by Goodwin. He adds that the current research in ASD is more focused on what causes ASD, rather than what we can do to help children diagnosed and the caretakers living with them.  He is concerned that the number of children being diagnosed with ASD is far exceeding the number of specialists being able to treat and provide excellent therapy to them.

Goodwin is working with computer science and electrical engineers to create sensors that can be woven into clothes, embedded into accessories, or inserted into devices that can be carried or worn.  The devices continuously record physical activity patterns and autonomic nervous system sensing-that is, how a body is responding biologically.  Other equipment is also used to integrate the information, such as video cameras, microphones, and radio-frequency identification tags.  By incorporating these technologies, Goodwin believes he is obtaining poweful information in natural settings-at home, school, and in the community–about what is happening to an individual with more challenging forms of ASD.  He adds that this is analogous to using Xrays, MRIs  and CTscans to non-invasively study the internal aspects of the body, in that this combined technology assists in understanding communication, socialization, and the behavioral development of children with ASD.  “Behavioral imaging” is the terminology he uses to study the whole child in these naturalistic settings.

Children with autism frequently engage in repetitive motor movements such as hand flapping, body rocking, and finger flicking.  These behaviors are poorly understood and often times felt to be abberant behaviors.  Goodwin’s research study allows these behaviors to be recorded and studied since the wireless and wearable sensors collect information on movement patterns. These behaviors can be better understood as to why a child might be engaging in those behaviors and rather than just telling a child to “stop doing that, it looks weird.”  Goodwin adds, “We’re finding in some that physiological arousal is predictive of a child’s performance on a task or a precursor to certain kinds of behaviors.  This gives a better sense of causal relationships between overt behavior and internal physiology, suggesting that the behavior isn’t defiant or pathological, but instead an attempt to self-regulate.”

Since many autistic children will gravitate toward computers and other dynamic media, Goodwin and his colleagues can more easily study them using webcams that can automatically recognize a child’s facial expressions along with the embedded technologies that can record their physiological state.  These and other technologies can record whether a child is agitated or calm, an especially useful tool in predicting the behavior of a nonverbal individual.  This information can allow parent, teachers and caregivers to adjust their interactions with a child.

Finally, the goal of Goodwin’s research is to learn as much as possible about what distinguishes children with and without ASD and to understand what are the most appropriate teaching methods possible, so not only to provide a better life for those affected by ASD, but also to train parents, teachers, therapists and caregivers.