• Question: What sort of technologies have you designed that could help autism or something like that in the future?

    Asked by chloe142005 to Nadine, Alyssa on 8 Jan 2018.
    • Photo: Nadine Lavan

      Nadine Lavan answered on 8 Jan 2018:

      None personally, unfortunately! I’ll pass this question on to Alyssa who will certainly be able to say more about this than I can :).

    • Photo: Alyssa Alcorn

      Alyssa Alcorn answered on 10 Jan 2018:

      I have thought about this for a couple of days to try to work out an informative way to answer. My scientist impulse is to ask you to define what you mean by “technologies”, “help”, and “autism”, and also to give me a timescale for “future”! Science needs to frame precise, definable questions in order to look for the answers, and know if we have found an answer! I don’t have that information, so will try to answer the general idea of this question.

      First, what does it mean to help autism with a technology? I will be very clear that I, and my colleagues on the DE-ENIGMA project and at the CRAE lab, don’t believe in “curing” autism. That’s not actually possible, and denies that being autistic is a totally valid, valuable, meaningful way of being in the world. However, that doesn’t mean that children (and adults) on the spectrum do not *in general* have more difficulty with some things (like recognising and interpreting emotional faces) than do non-autistic people. There are lots of areas of difference that result in stress and difficulty or even danger in everyday life. I am interested in trying to help people (particularly children) on the autism spectrum by working on skills and knowledge that—based on what is known about development over the lifespan—are most likely to help them over time. Communication skills and understanding emotional faces are an example of this, and technology is only one way to address them.

      I–and pretty much every researcher in every field– would like to say that I have invented an amazing thing that will substantially better people’s lives. The honest answer is that I have not designed anything like that. But maybe one day I will!

      However, “helping” isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. The exact programs/systems I and my colleagues have worked on were never distributed as a “finished product” and you won’t find them in your local school right now, so they aren’t helping in that respect. BUT, big but, we learned a huge amount and that is incredibly valuable. The technology work I have personally been a part of has created more knowledge around how to successfully design technologies that young children on the autism spectrum can understand, want to use, and can learn from. Also, we have learned a lot about what type of technologies may actually fit into existing autism education settings! My PhD work on touch-screen games (and the ECHOES project that inspired it) also illustrated how successful technologies can be as something that autistic children and their teachers or parents can interact *about*, and how they can be a tool to help motivate and structure their social interaction.

      So, perhaps the best answer to your question is to say, no, I have not designed any technologies that are helpful yet, beyond (I hope) providing some benefit for the relatively small number of children who have been in my studies. However, I think that the field of autism and technology is evolving very fast and getting better all the time, and that I and other researchers are now much better prepared than we were 5 years ago to work on a new generation of technologies that will provide clearer educational or daily-life benefits to children on the autism spectrum.