New tools help kids with autism improve socialization skills

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Research at Stanford University Medical School has found that children with autism improved measurably on a test of socialization and learning skills when their therapy included at-home use of Google Glass.

Autism is a neurological and developmental spectrum disorder that affects how children interact with others, communicate and learn. Children with autism often have difficulty discerning facial expressions, which results in missing important clues that aid in learning and socialization.

Google Glass is a headset worn like eyeglasses that provides augmented reality on a miniature screen with sound. Researchers, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that the combination of use of eyeware and mobile phone-based games helped children better understand emotions conveyed in facial expressions.

“Technology can be a terrific asset to the therapy process, for both physical and neurodevelopmental gains,” says Tiffani Lash, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering extramural research program at Stanford. The innovative software and hardware coupled with the therapeutic component meets a dire need for many children and their parents.”

Google Glass is sens-less, non-invasive and a peripheral device—sitting off to the right side of view for the child.

“The system acts as a true augmentation to their reality, keeping them in their natural social world, as opposed to taking them out of it,” explains Dennis Wall, an associate professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and biomedical data sciences. In contrast to virtual or mixed reality, augmented reality is potentially a powerful vehicle through which we can teach children social skills to rescue some of these deficits early in their development.”

A camera in the device captures the facial expression of family members, reinforcing what the child sees by providing an image and audio prompt. The camera can detect 8 emotions: happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, disgusted, “meh” and neutral.

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The glasses are wirelessly connected to a smartphone device that offers a variety of games where the child is prompted, for example, to say something that prompts an expression in a family member’s face. Parents also can record a video that they can watch at a later time to assess progress the child is making with the activities.

“Our hope is that the video playback is a good source of reinforcement learning with the child,” Wall says. “It provides the opportunity for the learner to focus on certain human emotions that they may or may not be getting right, so they might become more adept at detecting those emotions in real-time.”

A subsequent study of 71 children revealed that children receiving the smart glasses intervention along with standard therapy scored significantly higher than children in a control group.

“While the overall effect is modest, the positive change seen in the treated children is significant and points to a new direction that could help more children get the care they need,” Wall concludes.

He also predicts that in the near-future there will be a wider array of augmented reality wearables. “After a period of time, the children take the glasses off and they grow on their own into more complex social scenarios.”

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