Scientists have developed an app to be used with the optical head-mounted display Google Glass that can help improve social skills of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers found that the wearable technology can recognise conversational prompts and provide the user with suitable responses in return. ASD is a life-long condition that affects one in 68 people. A defining feature of ASD is difficulties with social communication – which can include initiating and maintaining conversations with others. “We developed software for a wearable system that helps coach children with autism spectrum disorder in everyday social interactions,” said Azadeh Kushki, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto in Canada.
Kushki and her colleagues developed the app, named Holli, to be used with Google Glass. It listens to conversations and prompts the user with an appropriate reply. To assess the usability of the prototype software, the researchers asked 15 children with ASD to be guided by Holli when interacting socially. They found that Holli could complete most conversations without error, and that children could follow the prompts to carry on a social interaction.
Holli was often able to understand what the users were saying before they finished saying it, which helped the conversation to flow naturally. “In this study, we show that children are able to use this new technology and they enjoy interacting with it,” said Kushki.
Children with ASD are often drawn to technological devices and find them highly motivating tools for delivering interventions designed to help them. The problem with existing technology, however, is that using human-to-computer interaction to teach social skills can have the opposite effect to its goal, in that the user becomes socially isolated, researchers said. “The interesting thing about our new technology is that we are not trying to replace human-to-human interactions; instead, we use this app to coach children who are communicating with people in real-world situations,” said Kushki. Further developments will allow customisation for individual users, such as changing prompt location, size and medium, to cater to each child’s unique preference and ability, researchers said.