Research and Breakthroughs

Enough! Time for Tech to Help Kids with Autism

1 out of 68 children in the United States will be diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The prevalence of an ASD diagnosis grew by 72 percent between 2007 and 2011. Tech-based interventions targeted to children with autism have the potential to help solve challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communications.

At the South by Southwest Interactive Healthcare Conference in Austin, TX earlier this month, Larry Yin, MD, medical director of the Boone Fetter Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles led a panel titled “Enough! Time for Tech to Help Kids with Autism.” The panel discussed the state of autism, and how technology can be used to improve quality of life of thousands of families.

Along with Yin, other panel members included Azadeh Kushki, PhD, a scientist at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and assistant professor at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, and Vandna Mittal, MPH, digital health program coordinator at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Etienne Fiset, co-founder Ooly123, a color-based visual aid for children with sleep issues, moderated the panel.

Dr. Kushki delivered a brief overview of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which was followed by a discussion about the challenges of developing technology solutions for this highly diverse patient population. Several technology developments were examined including body sensors like Fitbits, which are not well-tolerated by many patients with ASD as they do not respond well to physical contact with objects. Virtual reality, on the other hand, has shown promise for coaching some higher functioning adults with ASD for job interviews because it allows them to develop social skills such as interpreting facial expressions and determining appropriate verbal responses to questions. Another area of technology that holds promise for individuals with ASD is augmented reality with artificial intelligence (AR/AI) because it provides unobtrusive cues to resolving challenging social situations via google glass-like visual text overlays that the patient can use in real time. Novel tech solutions like these need to be flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs of individuals with ASD ranging in age from children to adolescents and young adults.

Parents in the audience expressed a desire for a technology solution that could be used to avert panic attacks – a problem for individuals with ASD. While heart rate, posture, eye and limb movements are sometimes used to measure stress and panic experienced by patients with ASD in the clinic, parents wondered if telehealth/digital health could extend observation beyond the clinic to include 24/7 observation in real-world settings.

Dr. Yin stressed that the current provider/patient ratio is way too limited, and any tech solution that helps increase meaningful engagement between providers and patients would be beneficial to all.

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