CW Unplugged: Tech for Autism

Blog published by CW (Cambridge Wireless), under Augmented, Virtual & Mixed Reality, Automation / Robotics, Education / Training, Games, Healthcare Applications, Product Design, Research (Technology), Technical Consultancy

This month’s CW Unplugged event brought together end-users, academics and young Cambridge entrepreneurs to debate key challenges in the progression of autism technology from academia into a mainstream field.

The challenges presented to the groups were:

  1. How can we collaborate to generate content that is meaningful for autistic groups?
  2. What can be done to get VR solutions into the hands of autistic groups, at scale?
  3. How can we use existing sources of evidence to inform autism-tech projects?
  4. How can we produce and communicate evidence about whether autism-tech solutions “work”?

According to statistics from the National Autism Society, 700,000 people in the UK (just over 1% of the nation’s population) are on the autism spectrum, which means that, including families and carers, it is part of the daily life of 2.8 million people.

Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability for which there is no cure. While it varies from person to person, it tends to affect the way that a person communicates, interprets sensory information and relates to the people around them. Kevin Chapman, our first speaker of the evening and parent to an autistic child, had asked subscribers to his popular YouTube channel in advance of last night’s event what they considered to be the biggest challenges of caring for a person with autism and the responses were consistent:

    • Ensuring a healthy diet and exercise
    • Managing the daily routine – and responses to events that are outside this routine
    • The lack of ability to plan for the future, either for the autistic individual or for the carers
    • Educating an autistic person to recognise and respond to dangers in a safe way
    • Many autistic people have a very literal interpretation of verbal language and are unable to interpret facial expressions, tone of voice or humour.  Some have great difficulty in expressing themselves verbally.

Jackie and Scott Luland from Autism Peterborough echoed the reflections of Kevin’s subscribers, with a particular emphasis on the anxiety that living with autism can cause an individual.

The provision for autistic people in this country has huge potential (and need) to expand. Most of the current academic research is focused around children, but it is a condition that affects adults as well. In fact, 84% of those diagnosed with autism are unemployed. Given that 700,000 people in the UK are autistic, this is a huge percentage of the population who are not in work, are unable to financially support themselves, and require care from others – it is a very valuable area for technological research and innovation that, to date, is relatively untapped.

That said, the evening demonstrated some fantastic work that is currently underway. The UK is second in the world in terms of volume of research being done in the field of autism. Nigel Newbutt, Senior Researcher at the University of the West of England, has researched the potential for autistic individuals to benefit from virtual reality technology. Research in this area started in 1996 and promptly stalled due to the status of the technology. It was picked up again in 2015 with the launch of the Oculus Rift and continues to progress. The logic behind the research is that enabling an autistic individual to practice skills in a virtual world removes much of the anxiety caused by the unknown consequence of actions in the real world, so builds confidence and accelerates skill development. Nigel’s research to date centres around the responses of autistic people to a virtual world – firstly, is there any distress or discomfort and, secondly, do they enjoy it or find it useful. The results are positive and paves the way for educational applications to be developed for the platform.

Alyssa M Alcorn , Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), within the UCL Institute of Education, followed, discussing the progress made to date on the DE-ENIGMA Horizon 2020 project on social robots as teaching tools for autism. This project seeks to develop an intelligent, adaptive robot for helping autistic individuals interpret facial movements.

Alyssa’s main challenge is the process for evaluating the impact of technology being developed for autistic individuals. In her own words:

“Publicly available autism technology is a wild west with no sheriff: you can do, claim and sell anything to anyone.”

There are currently no quality marks or testing requirements for issuing a product or service and claiming any benefit desired. This is a huge issue for the millions of end-users in the country who are looking for solutions to the problems mentioned earlier. Part of the problem comes from isolating progress made to a single technology. Autistic individuals, especially those at school, receive so many different interventions each looking to develop the same skills, that it is hard to isolate and assign the cause of any progress.

Following this scene-setting, the delegates split into two groups to ideate around the challenges that the presenters had set.  The first group looked at challenges 1 & 2 (content & distribution) and the second group looked at challenges 3 & 4 (gathering & communicating impact evidence).

In terms of content development and distribution, the first step was to map out and understand the end-to-end ecosystem required for technology development and end-users. At that point it was clear that the market was in different stages, for example the hardware is available and moving to mass adoption; and software development is focused on mainstream content, such as entertainment media. For this use case (autism-tech) the content must be bespoke, relevant and very high quality. To enable this, gathering data from users will be critical, and the idea of co-creation with the autistic community is encouraged. In terms of generating mass adoption, it was felt that neither government or multinationals will be likely to make a move in this area unless there is clear data that suggests financial or social benefit for doing so – this data is, as yet, woolly.

But that question was one that the second group were answering. The highlight from this ideation group was around the gathering of data that is already available. While it is possible in the future to move to more advanced forms of continual data gathering through the autism-tech applications themselves (where consent is given), for now there is plenty of knowledge in parent groups, internet forums and charities. While conducting research on individuals with autism is a challenging field due to the unpredictability of the test subjects, there are groups of people willing to support this data collection to help grow the case to present to government and industry. At the end of the day, Autism Peterborough volunteered to host research sessions during their events and welcomed further work in this area.

The actions following CW Unplugged: Tech for Autism are currently being gathered and approved among delegates. If you are interested in participating in an upcoming Tech for Good session, register your interest today. The next event, Agri-Tech & Water, is on June 26.

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