“Autism is a developmental impairment affecting the ability to communicate and socialize. It is called a spectrum disorder, because it can appear in greatly varying degrees, often showing up early in life. Symptoms include poor language development, lack of empathy, resistance to changes in routine, repetitive behavior, and obsessive interests. At one end of the spectrum are people who retreat into their own world and become profoundly [challenged]; at the other [end] are those with ”high-functioning autism” who, though they lack some degree of intuition about what others are thinking, can often figure things out through logical analysis, a ”human-hacking” process not unlike the efforts of Mr. Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan character in the TV series ‘Star Trek.’” Excerpt from IEEE Spectrum Magazine “When Engineers’ Genes Collide” 10/1/2006
As a working mother of an Autistic seven year old, I understand the all too real challenges that a child ‘on the spectrum’ can face. One frequently documented area where autistic children encounter many challenges is in school. Generally speaking, I have found that the tools to evaluate autistic children in a normal school setting are not geared to capture the nuances of behaviors that are exhibited by the autistic population. For example, many parents, including myself, have a need to make sure that our children’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is built for their success in the classroom. In order for the best informed and holistic version of the IEP to be developed and then implemented, it is necessary that the daily behaviors, teacher’s observations, feedback and interactions are recorded. Yet, this is not an easy task for any of the partners involved – including parents, teachers and most of all the children.
It is evident that to help autistic children succeed, all of the stakeholders must collaborate effectively and reach the appropriate level of consensus in the most transparent, fair, open and inclusiveness manner in order for the child to have the greatest level of success in school. In the best of scenarios, everyone is able to focus on the end goal and make the necessary commitments to make it happen.
Even in these ideal cases, it is my belief that technology advancements can complement these key stakeholder conversations and aid to potentially reduce time to positive outcome, as well as possibly offer creative solutions to support greater likelihood of the child’s success.
This is where I find working for the IEEE as an opportunity to help foster advancement in technologies that benefit humanity – including helping to make life easier for those that face life challenges such as autism. From what I see, technology has the potential to impact the autistic population in a meaningful way and throughout the full lifecycle of autism management. For example, innovative technologists have been working on sensorized devices (i.e. rattles, toys(1)), in order to monitor sensory-motor development, with the intent to detect and diagnose autism at an earlier stage. Along the lines of diagnosis, the technological advancements in EEG and neurofeedback solutions have the eventual power to capture and help optimize the quality and availability of output information, and can serve to be an emerging therapy for Autism (2&3). Another intriguing example offers a cloud-based solution leveraging mobile applications to manage the autism management lifecycle – including helping children to learn about emotions, body language, turn taking and other social skills (4). There is great potential also in the robots that help with emotional interactions and learnings as well as the development of social interaction, verbal and non-communication (5), emotional intelligence, mimicking and even academic skills through educational games. Certainly, it is clear to see how technologies like these can be beneficial in the classroom to all stakeholders involved. Further, with advancements in augmented reality, processor power, sensors and wearables and faster data pipes, it is also evident that as the technologies continue to evolve at such a rapid pace, and with more focus is placed on autism and all its use cases, we will begin to see greater progress in the oncoming years.
Technology has an important role to play as a complement in the autism management lifecycle, and with the full support and commitment of all of the key stakeholders focused on providing the necessary and needed adequate education (which is the legal obligation of every school district), I, as a parent of an autistic child, know that the best outcomes for my child’s future can become a very achievable reality. So as I sit here writing this article in the final days of Autism Awareness Month, I eagerly look forward to that day when I can see the advancement of technology progress to the point of truly benefiting all of humanity.