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A new vision for Autism treatment

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Emotions. All of us have them, feel them in some way, and oftentimes want to share them with others. Whether this be because we’ve just achieved a grade we’re happy with on an exam (rather apt, with it having been A-level results day very recently), seeing a sight that’s breathtaking, experiencing a break-up that’s heartbreaking, or maybe just feeling that burning frustration that I recently felt whilst waiting over an hour for a delayed train, that was then delayed even further once I got on it. Whenever, wherever, and however we feel these emotions, we also communicate with them. If you look at me, noticing that my jaw has dropped and my eyes are bulging out of their sockets, then the chances are that I’m shocked or surprised. Emotions act as our core communicative devices to instigate and develop social interactions. Just like the little emoji expressions widely seen on smartphone, laptop and tablet keyboards, our facial expressions can speak for us.

But, what would happen if we couldn’t understand these? The language of emotions can be rather hazy for those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the umbrella term for a range of conditions such as Asperger syndrome, that impact upon a person’s social interaction, communication, behaviour and interests. This means that for the 1 in every 100 individuals in the UK living with ASD, communicative behaviours such as eye contact, facial expressions, body language and gestures are more challenging to engage in and understand. Consequently, those living with ASD can appear withdrawn, have delayed language development, and engage in alternative coping behaviours to manage challenging and unfamiliar social situations.

‘My jaw has dropped and my eyes are bulging out of their sockets, then the chances are that I’m shocked or surprised’ Source: phxere

However, thanks to the recent resurrection of the former fashion trend, ‘Google Glass’, a partnership between the Google Glasses headset and the ‘Empower Me’ app is embracing neurotechnology to help children living with Autism navigate and manage social situations. The pairing harnesses facial recognition software to provide the wearer with ‘real-time updates on which emotions people are expressing’. The methodology behind this phenomenon is that the program is set up to recognise 7 core emotions, through the facial expressions seen by the wearer: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust and contempt. When detected by the Google glasses, these emotions are matched to an emoji-like icon, presented in the right corner of the glasses’ screen. Each interaction can then be recorded, and reviewed afterwards using a colour-coded timeline that signifies when the Google glass software registers a certain emotion.

Success of the Google Glass therapy, coupled with widespread approval, could provide a ‘powerful learning aid for many children with Autism’

Whilst this invention may sound vaguely reminiscent of the film ‘Inside Out’, it has the potential to solve the problem of may children with ASD having to wait up to 18 months for professional support and therapy for the condition. In fact, traditional therapies for the condition are often expensive, inconsistent, and less convenient in day-to-day life. Those living with Autism struggle to read others’ emotions- something we typically learn from a young age through interaction with family and friends. Google Glass provides an ‘at-home, on-demand behavioural therapy’, according to Dennis Wall, Principal Investigator of the study, and Biomedical Data Scientist, specialising in Paediatrics at Stanford University.

The international, peer-reviewed journal, ‘npj Digital Medicine’, reports that the pilot trial from researchers at Stanford University- involving 14 children, between 3 and 17 years of age, with ASD using the program at home for just over 10 weeks- resulted in improved social skills. These included increased eye contact and greater ability to understand facial expressions. Following usage of the program for three 20 minute periods over the course of the 10 weeks, parents of the children involved completed questionnaires to evaluate their child’s performance. Whereas anything below 60 is considered to be an average score on the ‘Social Responsiveness Scale’, among Neurotypicals, anything between 60 and 65 is deemed mild Autism, 65 to 75, and over 75 being moderate and severe Autism, respectively. Interestingly, the average score of those taking part in this study dropped from 80.07 before, to 72.93 after, the trial was conducted: an improvement from severe to moderate Autism traits. Whether this is representative of the long-term benefit of the study for participants is yet to be confirmed, but is promising nonetheless.

Google glasses. Source: wiki commons

Moreover, 11 of the 14 children involved took part in the ‘Emotion Recognition Exam’, at the beginning and end of their Google glasses treatment, where an examiner performed each of the 7 key emotions 5 times in no particular order, with the child guessing which emotion was being expressed. A more significant improvement was observed here, with the average score before treatment being 28.45 out of 40, and that after being 38 out of 40- an increase of 24%. However, promising as these results may be, there was no control group in the study, that didn’t receive the treatment, to compare to. So, we cannot conclude that it was definitely due to the Google Glass program that the children showed improved social skills, comments Ned Sahin, Neuroscientist at ‘Brain Power’, a company in Boston that designs wearable technology to assist those living with Autism. Sahin suggests that a randomised controlled trial, whereby participants are randomly assigned the treatment, or not, without their knowledge, would resolve this issue. This is in the pipeline, with preparations being made for an experiment including 74 children between 6 and 12, around the middle of the original age bracket.

Success of the Google Glass therapy, coupled with widespread approval, could provide a ‘powerful learning aid for many children with Autism’. Indeed, Donji Cullenbine, foresees that her son, Alex, ‘will have better relationships with people’, a lasting change. Furthermore, Kristen Brown, mother of Julian who took part in the study, remarks that her son is able to ‘connect with family more’ and he ‘seems to be pausing more to gather information…in conversation’, not seen prior to the study.

the program is set up to recognise 7 core emotions… happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust and contempt.

Additionally, the children who took part in the study commented in an interview afterwards, saying that the Google glasses were ‘useful and practical’ and did not provide a stressful or ‘overwhelming sensory or emotional experience’, a common social barrier to those with ASD.

Overall, despite this being a small and snapshot study, a step has been in the right direction to aid those living with ASD, building on existing literature on the feasibility and tolerability of the Google Glass software. With $110, 000 in crowd funding to help advance the technology, researchers are confident that the glasses provide a new vision for the future of Autism treatment.

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