This interdisciplinary project proposes fundamental, transformative technology improvements to assist children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The objective is to develop a novel affect and attention sensitive virtual reality -based assistive technology for ASD intervention. Social communication and social information processing are thought to represent core domains of impairment in children with ASD. The proposed research will develop technologies capable of targeting individual deficit by flexibly and adaptively responding to subtle affective and attentive changes in individuals with ASD during social paradigms and create VR-based ASD intervention technology that can present itself as a realistic and powerful intervention platform.
The individual, familial, and societal impact associated with ASD is enormous. Therefore, an important direction for research on ASD is the identification and development of technology that can make application of effective intensive treatment more accessible and cost effective. To address this need, this project will combine VR-based technology with affective computing using physiological signals and attention inference through eye gaze measurement to develop a new paradigm for autism intervention that will appreciably transform the ability to understand and tailor interventions to the specific vulnerabilities of children with ASD. The project will develop an assistive technology that will result in an affect and attention sensitive system for detecting, adaptively responding to, and optimizing levels of social interaction for children with ASD during VR interactions. The system is scalable and adaptable to a broad range of intervention strategies, providing flexibility in design and implementation.
The proposed research advances the design and authoring of adaptive virtual environments for use with a challenged population of children. It has the potential to significantly contribute new computational methods for affective computing, particularly affective computing mediated by physiologic signal processing. Primarily, the project will develop new framework to design virtual environments for social interaction that intelligently combine both affective and attentive information into adaptive and controllable response systems. The proposed activity also represents a new technology that will fundamentally advance the engineering knowledge of human-computer interactions as well as the understanding of the mechanisms that underlie the presumed core social impairments, and associated interventions, with ASD.
Broader Impacts: Emerging research suggests as many as 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and ASD related care costs the nation over $35 billion annually. The low-cost and highly deployable technologies developed in this proposal could have significant impact on this population. They may also create a completely new technological intervention methodology for children with ASD. This research may further a technology that can enable all core components of effective intervention at only a fraction of the cost of typical intervention programs, while at the same time increasing the ability of the intervention provider to systematically control and promote intervention related skills targeting individual deficit. The educational activities will train and mentor undergraduate and graduate students in the proposed research, and develop one module in a one-credit seminar course targeted to engineering freshman class. The outreach activities will include offering research opportunities to high school students, especially among groups currently underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and providing high school teachers with research experience during summer in the design and research evaluation of advanced technologies for autism intervention. Outreach objectives will also involve usability testing to elicit feedback from behavioral professionals and children with ASD. This project represents an opportunity to leverage a unique collaboration that brings cutting-edge engineering, psychology, and clinical knowledge to the development of a pragmatic and efficacious assistive intervention technology addressing core symptoms of ASD.