New App Helps Autistic Children Start Conversations

Although Google Glass never did reach the market, the technology could presumably be adapted to other smart glasses.Although Google Glass never did reach the market, the technology could presumably be adapted to other smart glasses.

Among other things, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often have difficulty initiating and maintaining conversations. That’s why a team of scientists, led by University of Toronto assistant professor Azadeh Kushki, created Holli. It’s an app that presently runs on Google Glass, and it tells ASD kids what they should say next, newatlast reported.

“We developed software for a wearable system that helps coach children with autism spectrum disorder in everyday social interactions,” says Kushki, who is also a scientist at Toronto’s Bloorview Research Institute. “In this study, we show that children are able to use this new technology and they enjoy interacting with it.”

The system listens to what the user and another person are saying in a conversation, and recognizes commonly-used conversational prompts on the part of that other person. It then presents suitable responses for the user to choose from, in the glasses’ display.

If the other person were to greet the user by saying “Welcome,” for instance, the user would be presented with responses such as “Hey,” “Hello” or “Afternoon.” Once Holli heard the user say one of those things, it would clear the display and wait to hear the next prompt.

The app has been tested on 15 children with ASD, who were able to use it to carry on relatively smooth conversations. And although Google Glass never did reach the market, the technology could presumably be adapted to other smart glasses.

“The interesting thing about our new technology is that we are not trying to replace human-to-human interactions; instead, we use this app to coach children who are communicating with people in real-world situations,” says Kushki. “Children can practice their skills outside of their normal therapy sessions and it can provide them with increased independence in everyday interactions.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, one in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder, and autism is far more common in boys than girls.

“There are very few services available for these kids,” Kushki says. “They get the diagnosis and that’s about it — there isn’t much that can be done. There are long wait lists for services. And often by the time they actually get to receiving these treatments and services, a lot of them are too old to benefit.  Technology can provide a way to make these services accessible to families.”

For example, the work that much-needed therapists do can be expensive and difficult to secure. But by developing applications that can be downloaded to an iPad that mimic the same types of exercises a child would do with a live therapist, Kushki hopes to make therapy accessible to all kids.

Kushki says research shows that the earlier autistic kids can access therapy and services, the better chance they have of becoming active participants in society. Eventually, she wants to offer the highly intelligent kids with autism at Holland Bloorview the opportunity to have a hands-on role in developing technology that can improve their lives.

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