From apps to robots and VR: How technology is helping treat autism

From apps to robots and VR: How technology is helping treat autism

Millions of people are affected by autism worldwide, but now technology is doing its bit to deliver a better quality of life for all.

Poverty, terrorism and disease are all seen and treated as major crises, but what about autism? In Australia, there are around 230,000 people diagnosed with the condition and it touches the lives of an estimated 2.8 million people a day. In the US, this figure reaches more than 3.5 million people.


Autism is a lifelong disability that affects communication and the ability to understand others. Currently, there isn’t a cure or treatment that can eradicate symptoms altogether, and government cuts have resulted in scarce support services.

There is still hope for people who are affected by autism, though, and it’s increasingly coming from the application of technology. The latest innovations are providing an alternative type of support to those on the spectrum and their families, helping them with communication, social skills and learning.

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong, neurological condition that affects the way a person communicates and relates to others around them. It’s usually referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because it affects different people in different ways and is thus a very complex condition. Some people are affected severely, which means they’re non-verbal and are socially isolated and it’s as if they live in their own world. In fact, the word autism comes from the Greek word autos, meaning self.

Others are affected moderately and need regular help and support in their daily lives, while those with high-functioning autism, or Asperger's Syndrome, are generally more able individuals, and some have even used the beneficial characteristics of autism to become highly successful in their chosen field.

Autism signs and symptoms

Behaviours indicating someone has autism vary by age. In pre-school children, common signs are delayed speech development, frequent repetition of certain words or phrases, monotonous speech and choosing to communicate with only one word. Children this age also have poor spatial perception and don't typically enjoy interacting with children their own age. 

Many of the signs of autism in school children mirror what occurs in pre-school childrens' lives. For example, school children tend to avoid speaking and often speak in a monotone voice when they do communicate verbally. They also struggle in social situations with kids their age and avoid eye contact, misunderstand sarcasm and play in a repetitive and unimaginative way, often with objects and not people.

What causes autism?

The precise causes of autism are not known. Researchers recently discovered bees that consistently fail to respond to social cues and people with autism share genes most closely associated with ASD. This went some way towards uncovering the evolution of social behaviours and shows that, across the animal kingdom, we share genetic information that could point to how we think and act around others. In particular, it points further evidence to not only the genetic source of autism but also routes that can now be taken to find a cure. 

More recently, in research from the University of California, scientists used MRI to identify what the team calls "structural abnormalities in the brains of people with one of the most common genetic causes of autism." In particular, the results showed some striking differences in the brain structures of people with autism compared to those without. The bundle of fibres that connects the left and right sides of the brain, for example, was thicker.

Other stark differences included larger-than-standard cerebellum, the bottom back part of the brain, toward the spinal cord, as well as decreased white matter volume and larger ventricles. These abnormalities can be spotted in the brains of people with autism and suggest signs of autism could be more easily identified from brain scans. 

"People with deletions tend to have brain overgrowth, developmental delays and a higher risk of obesity," said study author Julia P. Owen. "Those with duplications are born with smaller brains and tend to have lower body weight and developmental delays."

Is autism hereditary?

Studies have shown that having one child with autism is a "well-known risk factor" for having another child with the same disorder. This suggests a further genetic link and, more recently, a study claimed that a sibling's gender can play a role.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School claimed their research had "quantified the likelihood" that a family who has one child with autism would have another based on the siblings' gender.

Overall, the results, published in JAMA Pediatrics, revealed that having an older female child with autism increased the risk for younger siblings, and that risk was elevated in younger male siblings.  

"Our results give us a fair degree of confidence to gauge the risk of autism recurrence in families affected by it based on a child's gender," said author Nathan Palmer. "It is important to be able to provide worried parents who have one child with the condition some sense of what they can expect with their next child. That information is critical given how much better we've become at screening for the disease earlier and earlier in life."

The challenges of autism

The challenges people with autism face are daunting. 85% of autistic adults are not in full-time employment. Bullying happens to more than 40% of autistic children at school, more than 25% have been excluded from school, and 70% of autistic people have a mental health issue of some kind.

Life is tougher for autistic people, primarily because of the overwhelming lack of understanding and awareness of autism from the rest of society. Tony Attwood, a leading expert in high-functioning autism and Asperger's Syndrome, says individuals with autism do not suffer from autism, instead they suffer from the ignorance of other people.

The best apps to help with autism


Technology for Autism Now is just one of the organisations harnessing technology to provide autism treatment and support. Marie Duggan, mother of an autistic adult, set up the non-profit organisation in 2009 to improve the lives of children on the spectrum and their families by providing them with beneficial technology.

One of its creations is Autiknow, an education app available on iOS. It uses images and symbols to teach autistic children how to be functional at home, at school and in their communities. At the same time, the app collects data on how users are learning, to help better understand the condition and find ways to offer alternative treatments. 

“Technology is an excellent tool to facilitate the creation and use of visual and auditory supports, and collect performance data to help individuals with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder]," Marie Duggan told us. "Furthermore, it makes it possible to amass databases for researchers seeking better treatments.”

The focus for Technology for Autism Now stretches beyond children of school age, however – the organisation also focuses on helping the increasing numbers of older sufferers who struggle with daily life. Duggan is confident that, in time, tech will be able to provide the friendly face that they need: “Early intervention is known to be critical, and the focus tends to be on school-aged children, but the tools we are developing will help persons of any age.  We envision Autiknow on a wearable device taking the place of a job coach, for example.”

SwiftKey Symbols

Communication can be a struggle for autistic people, and in some cases, those on the spectrum can be non-verbal. SwiftKey wants to help eradicate this problem with its symbol-based assistive communication app, SwiftKey Symbols. Launched in December 2015, it lets users communicate with others by constructing sentences made of pictures. What’s more, the app uses AI technology to predict what’s going to be said next.

“The communication opportunities that this app will provide are amazing,” Charlotte Parkhouse, a speech and language therapist who worked with SwiftKey on the development of the app told us. “The flexible use of symbols will allow pupils with severe communication difficulties to express themselves in meaningful ways, and the predictive symbol function means that it can be truly personalised.” 

Jamie Knight is an autistic developer, and uses a number of apps to get by on a daily basis. To him, he says, technology is his lifeline. Jamie explained: “I am autistic and use lots of tech. At the moment, the biggest use of tech for me is around speech. I can’t currently speak so am using an iPhone app called Proloquo4Text to speak for me. Tech is literally my voice.

“I also use other forms of tech to support my independent living. For example, I use the chat platform Telegram to manage my support network and I use a number of custom iOS apps to store routines and instructions. I use calendars and other organisation tools such as Trello and Slack, too.”

Technology is also helping parents support their autistic children, and Tony Dowling is an excellent example. He tells us how his son – who is ten years old and on the spectrum – uses a tablet as an outlet for his creativity and expression.

“My little boy is all at sea without his technology,” he said. “He has learnt so much from video content, especially as he’s incredibly adept at researching the things he’s interested in. Tech helps him with his creativity and expression, as well as entertainment and education. The intuitive nature of modern tablets and other handhelds makes it very easy for him to pick things up.”

I, Robot

Apps are only the beginning. Robots are also being used in the fight against autism, as Milo (a robot from RoboKind) demonstrates. Milo is a humanoid for educators, therapists and parents to engage with autistic people in a bid to improve their social skills. Targeted at primary-school children, it teaches them how to understand different emotions and expressions, and shows them appropriate ways of behaving and responding in a variety of contexts.

Autistic users look at Milo’s face and identify the emotion displayed by using an iPad, with feedback being recorded through cameras built into the robot’s eyes. At the same time, the user wears a chest monitor that looks for changes in heart rate. This allows a therapist or teacher to address difficulties. According to the company, children working with Milo are engaged 70-80% of the time, compared to 3-10% with standard therapy. 

“Robots are important because a large percentage of children with autism don’t like receiving information and teachings from humans,” said Fred Margolin, CEO of RoboKind. “And it’s already proven that the engagement level that the robot creates is already measured at 20 times that with humans. 

“As well as this, the cost of the robot per intervention – even with a helper – is dramatically less than human therapy, and the higher level of engagement gives the therapist an opportunity to better follow up on the concepts the robot can impart.”

VR and autism

For autistic people, human interaction isn’t the only challenge – adapting to new environments can be extremely stressful. But researchers from the University of the West of England and Michigan State University (MSU) believe that virtual-reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift can help those on the spectrum overcome this issue.

In a study conducted at MSU, researchers recruited 29 autistic adults, provided them with an Oculus Rift to wear and asked them to navigate a 3D environment. They then had to fill out a questionnaire containing 38 questions about their experience using AI. After analysing the responses, the research team found that the participants remained unphased: all of them were happy to use the VR headset, and felt at home in a virtual environment. Crucially, though, their anxiety levels were low and weren’t exacerbated by the VR experience.

Dr Nigel Newbutt, who led the research, says these findings indicate that VR headsets can be used in autism treatment. He told us: “Our research suggests that head-mounted displays might be a suitable space in which to develop specific interventions and opportunities; to practice some skills people with autism might struggle with in the real world. We’re seeking further funding to address this important question – one that has eluded this field to date.”

It will be some time until VR achieves its full potential for such applications, but it's just one of several areas of research that show how the intelligent application of tech is beginning to make a difference. Indeed, it's heartening to see that autism is finally beginning to get the wider attention, research and understanding it deserves.

And increasingly, it’s new and emergent technology that’s taking a central role in helping those on the spectrum with the challenges they encounter – turning bits and bytes into new ways of communicating, learning, and dealing with the trials of everyday life.

Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing

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