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SALT LAKE CITY — Medical professionals and computer scientists from more than 40 countries are showcasing their work at the 11th annual International Meeting for Autism Research at the Grand America Hotel this weekend.
The international conference is the largest of its kind, drawing nearly 2,000 clinicians, researchers and scientists working to understand and treat autism spectrum disorder.
The meeting includes presentations from researchers, keynote speeches from individuals with autism and their advocates, and collaborative breakout sessions. The conference also features a technology demonstration, which allows clinicians to better understand relevant engineering and programming projects under development.
"It's all about stimulating these dual communities to work together," said Matthew Goodwin, the conference's committee member over the tech demo. "A lot of computer scientists are approaching autism as a problem to be solved, but they really don't have the content domain expertise. We're hoping to expose both communities to each other to try to facilitate more collaborative work."
Well-applied computer science is revolutionizing the way autism is treated, Goodwin said, from screening and diagnosis to clinical interventions and outcome evaluations.
"Computing has already done this for every other sector of society," he said. "You look at entertainment, you look at transportation, securities, communications. Health is the next frontier."
Computers have allowed for the collection of qualitative data, lessening doctors' previous reliance on clinical observations, Goodwin said. Individuals with autism have a frequent affinity for all things digital, which makes the marriage even stronger.
It's all about stimulating these dual communities to work together. A lot of computer scientists are approaching autism as a problem to be solved, but they really don't have the content domain expertise. We're hoping to expose both communities to each other to try to facilitate more collaborative work.
–Matthew Goodwin, conference committee member
The West Health Institute of La Jolla, California, is showcasing a video game that uses Microsoft's Kinect technology to improve players' social skills. The game creates an immersive virtual environment in which players can practice entering conversations, standing in line and other basic social tasks.
Children can play the game independently, as the software generates and transmits automatic progress reports to the child's parents and therapists.
"We can do this autonomously," said presenter Michael Casale. "This is independent of the therapist. This is something they can do at home, ad lib."
Engineering students at the University of Kentucky are developing a program for Google Glass designed to help job-seeking adults who struggle to interpret social and nonverbal cues.
"We are developing a minimally socially invasive way to provide feedback to individuals with autism to assist them in getting better at social interaction," explained researcher Samson Cheung.
The program uses large, colorful text to indicate appropriate speaking volume — "Louder!" "Softer!" "Nice!" — and a bright yellow smiley face to encourage eye contact. Wearers should be able to catch the cues in their peripheral vision, allowing them to maintain eye contact with their interviewer.
"Assistive technology has opened an entirely new world for people with autism," said Andy Shih of Autism Speaks. "This kind of technology will actually speak directly to improving quality of life."
The benefits of assistive technology may even extend to those without disabilities, Goodwin said.
"The telephone and the typewriter, now ubiquitous technologies, were originally developed for the deaf and the blind," he said. "What are some of the things that might be developed here because they're committed to solving a problem in this disabled population that could be beneficial to everybody?"
Allison Oligschlaeger is currently studying English and Arabic at the University of Utah while completing an internship with the Deseret News. Contact her at email@example.com.