Are you a parent or parent-to-be? Then I’ll make you a promise: at the end of this article you’ll realize that your kids should play video games more often than you think they should. Either to assist them, if they are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), aka autism; or to help their autistic friends. Or both.
But let’s take a step back. One in 68 children is identified with autism in the U.S [] . The first symptoms appear between 12 and 18 months [DSM-5, 2017] . If they are detected by 18 months, treatment may help to reverse and minimize the impact of the condition. Early detection is key.

Machines detect autism in kids

Technology, too, can flag repetitive behaviors and speed up the diagnosis. Besides, it can assess whether the treatments are working and the child’s condition is improving. Here are a few recent advances:

•Microsoft Kinect: A webcam analyzes the way a kid moves and detects stereotypical movements. What’s more, it can do that from home, 24/7, and without any human supervision.

WearSense: This app works like a fitness tracker: with a wearable device you can track movements, detect patterns, and classify them. The software assesses three main actions: hand flapping, painting, and self-injury. It identifies autistic behaviors with 94.6% accuracy.

•NODA SmartCapture and Connect: If you’re worried about your child’s behavior, you can use NODA SmartCapture app to record him or her while having lunch, playing alone or with someone else, or in situations where you feel something doesn’t seem right. With NODA Connect, the doctor can watch the videos, interact with the parents, and come up with a diagnosis.

Moreover, technology can be much more than plain entertainment: it can turn into a way to explore the world and interact safely with others.

Machines help kids with autism to communicate

Machines are great tutors for children with autism because they can repeat things as many times as necessary, without losing their patience. Besides, although it’s not yet clear why, the “facial” features in bots that look like a kid and show emotions are not an issue for people with autism.
Smartphones, robots, and video games are remarkable examples of how technology aids children with autism.

•Virtual personal assistants: Siri, Cortana, and Alexa have no degree to handle people with autism. After all, they were not created for that purpose. Still, they have proven to have the right skillsets. It all began with a mother noticing her autistic son’s frequent chats with Siri. Her experiences are now collected in the recently published book “To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines”. From the author’s first article, back in 2014, technology greatly evolved in digital therapies for autism.

•Milo: He has brown hair and he can smile, walk, and speak. It’s not a kid, but a humanoid robot that “provides students with a safe, engaging way to practice human interaction and enhance their social skills”. Children won’t take their eyes off him. Literally! For an autistic child, it is difficult to interact with a human tutor: the average engagement time is only 1.5 minutes per hour. But with Milo, despite its humanoid look and its facial expressions, it’s a different story: kids and Milo can interact for over 52 minutes per hour. It’s a great achievement, especially if you consider that, for an average person, attention drops after 52 minutes!

•Video games: Video games, in particular if multiplayer, let kids with autism engage with a community and develop their social skills in an environment where there is no face-to-face interaction. Kids can apply what they learned in more challenging situations, i.e. in-person interactions. Dr. Gallup proves in her recent studies that the best video games for autism are the multiplayer online role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft. Location-based augmented reality games, like Pokemon Go, can also be beneficial, as they allow kids to play in the real world with digital aids. Thanks to video games, kids learn how to interact with people, build friendships, and have a good time.

The closer machines get to humans, the more they can be effective as therapies. Artificial Intelligence can improve autistic people’s social skills, and allow them to more easily maintain relationships. Machines may not have emotions, but can still teach us to be empathic.
Kang, Joon Young, Ryunhyung Kim, Hyunsun Kim, Yeonjune Kang, Susan Hahn, Zhengrui Fu, Mamoon I. Khalid, Enja Schenck, and Thomas Thesen. “Automated Tracking and Quantification of Autistic Behavioral Symptoms Using Microsoft Kinect.” In MMVR, pp. 167-170. 2016.
Amiri, Amir Mohammad, Nicholas Peltier, Cody Goldberg, Yan Sun, Anoo Nathan, Shivayogi V. Hiremath, and Kunal Mankodiya. “WearSense: Detecting Autism Stereotypic Behaviors through Smartwatches.” In Healthcare, vol. 5, no. 1, p. 11. Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 2017.
Gallup, Jennifer, and Barbara Serianni. “Developing Friendships and an Awareness of Emotions Using Video Games: Perceptions of Four Young Adults with Autism.” Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities 52, no. 2 (2017): 120.

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I joined United Academics back in 2013 while completing my Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. I truly believe in interdisciplinarity and that laboratory results are useless without proper communication and outreach. That’s how science communications turned out to be my career! In 2017, I became an editor for United Academics’ "Earth & Environment" and "Design & Technology" sections.


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