Google Glass: Can it help autistic kids?

“We chose Google Glass because it was a convenient vehicle for social cues to help kids with autism,” Dennis Wall, Professor at Stanford University tells me over the phone from the US. “In normal therapy, using flashcards is effective but not scalable. We want to provide an augmented reality system that could compliment or even replace the flash card system so therapy can be more continuous and natural.”

Wall is referring to the Autism Therapy on Glass project he is working on with a group of other researchers at Stanford University. Its aim is to help autistic kids across the spectrum detect and interpret emotions better. Google Glass, using facial recognition technology, interprets ten emotions and then feeds social cues back to the child.

Wall and his team of researchers have also developed an app that works with the Glass to capture social behaviour so the parent and child can review the day together and reflect when the mother was angry with the child. The aim is to provide a natural framework for the parents to participate actively with their child.

“Daily emotional reviews will result in faster gains,” says Wall.

The much lauded Google Glass got a lot of flak when it flunked in the consumer market because of its uncomfortable viewing experience, troubling privacy issues, and other limitations. But it didn’t necessarily spell the end for the device. Niche sectors like healthcare saw its potential and it has continued to be used in various ways.

And Wall sees it as being really useful in the autism field.

“The original market for Google Glass [was not the right one for it]. It’s not for the everyday user but more for medical [uses] or education. This project is a great example of why Google Glass can be useful for kids with [autism] and is hopefully helping Google rethink how to market this and where the potential lies in the future.”

Wall envisions the child wearing the Google Glass at home to interact with parents or their care provider during activity or general playtime with toys. He hopes the Google Glass will help kids interpret basic emotions which may lead to them being able to interpret more complex emotions. If this proves successful, he hopes children will be able to take the Glass off and be able to interact in social environments on their own, without the help of the Glass.

How often will the kids have to wear the Glass in order to gain a real benefit? 

“We don’t know yet. We have so far been testing it for about 20 minutes per session three times a day. We have been testing it with children across different age groups, across the spectrum, from the most severe to mild.”

Wall says that the enormous amounts of data they have been collecting from these trials will enable them to come up with a “predictive system” so they will be able to target the therapy more effectively.

The Autism Glass project certainly sounds like it holds a lot of promise but can it really provide a good alternative to traditional therapy methods?

Elaine Nicholson, CEO of Action for Asperger’s as a counsellor, has worked with over 1,000 individuals on the autism spectrum and has a lot of experience in autism and mental health issues. She says the Autism Glass Project could result in a reduction of kids with autism experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts. 

But Nicholson is doubtful that the autism Glass project is likely to work as a form of therapy on its own.

“It is likely to be a most useful, if not interesting, adjunct to traditional talking therapy. Many autistic kids are natural-born researchers with a need to question lines of information that are fed to them. Human interaction will be needed to help to interpret and provide answers for the curious.”

Dr Luke Beardon, Senior Lecturer in Autism at Sheffield Hallam University sees the advantages of using this type of technology but says a “one-size fits all approach will not categorically work across the autism population”. He also warns that the level of accuracy in emotional recognition by the Glass will be hugely significant.

“If there is a high level of accuracy then I see this project as being rooted in success, but if there are anomalies then some children will be mistrustful, in which case there would be ethical issues to take into consideration,” says Beardon.

“In my experience, the individual with autism who cannot rely on their own skills to understand and process emotions is at a huge disadvantage, so having an 'emotional interpreter' in the form of technology could go a long way towards reducing those disadvantages,” adds Beardon.

So far, Wall and his team of researchers have only conducted clinical trials for the last six months. He predicts it will be later in the spring before the technology is commercialised. He says the feedback so far has been “enormously positive” from autistic kids and parents and that children with autism have likened this to a “super-power” and “gaining a sixth sense”.



Further reading:

Autism, addiction and the nature of technology connectedness
A new global autism diagnostic app from Idaho
We need more autistics in tech
The iPad gives autistic children a voice in Canada


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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