Introducing the Autism Connects design challenge

On behalf of Autism Speaks, Core 77, and Jovoto I invite you to join the Autism Connects design challenge for a chance to win part of a $10,000 prize pool. At IMFAR 2009 we talked about a science contest, and this is the result. We’re awarding prizes for the best ideas to help autistic people overcome communication challenges.

So what, you ask, is a communication challenge?

In this contest, the term “communication challenges” is very broadly interpreted. A technology that helps Asperger people make friends can be considered, as can a device that helps nonverbal people talk. Tell us what challenge your device addresses, and how, and you’re in.

Entries will be judges by a panel consisting of myself, Temple Grandin, Peter Gerhardt, Peter Munday, Andy Shih, Dan Feshbach, Richard Seymour, and others.

Visit the landing page for the site here

College students have been able to register for the competition for a few weeks now and we’ve had good interest with over 100 signing up. The competition site will officially go live on January 3rd for design students to begin uploading their ideas and to receive feedback from the autism liaison community we’ve been busy putting together (we have 100 volunteers who will act as liaisons to provide advice and guidance on the designs).

Here is an essay I wrote on communication, from the contest description:

Everyone with autism has some sort of communication impairment. The terms autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, or PDD-NOS describe some of its different flavors. The various conditions that make up what we call the autism spectrum differ greatly in their impact upon us, but the one diagnostic feature they all have in common is communication impairment.

All autistic communication problems stem from brain dysfunction. Autistic people can see and hear just like anyone else, but our brains may not make sense of those inputs in the conventional way. The same is true for speaking or moving our bodies to convey messages. The physical parts are all there and working normally, but we have trouble using them in the expected way due to our neurological differences.

The most obvious autistic impairment is the inability to understand or deliver speech. In our society, if you can’t understand what others are saying, you are going to be disabled. If you can’t speak for yourself – whether through speech or writing – you are going to be disabled. If you can’t do either, you are doubly disabled.

If you can’t make sense of a phrase like “Bob will pick you up at five,” how will you ever get home? The short answer is, you won’t. An autistic person who cannot understand speech might be likened to someone who speaks English in a town filled with Chinese speakers, none of whom speak a single word of English.

However, there is an important difference between a native English speaker in China and an autistic person. The English speaker has all the wiring in his brain to converse. In a matter of days, he will be working out the meaning of simple Chinese phrases. The autistic person does not have a system for learning language. So he can’t adapt. For autistic people with language trouble, understanding speech can take years. For some, it never happens.

Speech and language impairments are what we might call left-brain afflictions of autism. What about the people with right-brain issues? Those folks may understand the logical meaning of words just fine, but they cannot grasp the emotional undertone. That’s always been my problem. I have no problem with logical meanings, but the unspoken subtext – so vital in expressing emotions – goes right over my head.

For example, when I hear, “That’s just great!” I cannot tell if I’m hearing praise or sarcastic criticism. With no clue how to answer, I respond incorrectly much of the time. That’s the silent communication disability in autism. People who can’t speak are obviously disabled, and cry out for compassion. People with good command of language, but no sense of the unspoken undercurrents, are often perceived as obnoxious, arrogant, or disrespectful. Those negative reactions lead to depression, anxiety, and in extreme cases, suicide or violence.

Some people on the spectrum have a hard time expressing themselves because they are, for lack of a better word, clumsy. That may sound strange, but issues with coordination and fine motor skills can make it hard to form facial expressions or make gestures to convey a message. If you are really ungainly, your meaning may be lost in a dance of strange-looking movements, or rendered invisible with no movement at all.

Where’s Bob? He’s over there. Most of us take for granted the ability to swivel and point so that you are sure to recognize Bob. A person who can’t do that effectively is handicapped just as surely as someone who cannot utter the words. Unfortunately, many individuals who have problems controlling their bodies also have trouble forming the spoken responses, so they are doubly impaired. Physical responses are an expected part of ordinary interchange; people who cannot do that tend to be ostracized, ignored, or subjected to ridicule.

People with traditional autism – also called Kanner’s Autism – tend to have both verbal and physical challenges of varying severity. People with Asperger’s Syndrome (like me) are more likely to have impairment in reading or conveying unspoken communications. Some of us have challenges in both areas.

We now recognize that early and aggressive intervention results in far better adult language skills. That’s why we feel it’s so important to identify and address autistic communication problems as early as possible. Technology plays a key role in both the identification and resolution of childhood communication issues.

For most young people, autism therapy ends when they leave high school. One-on-one therapy is costly; few people can afford it on their own. Adult health insurance is often limited in coverage. That’s why we look to technology to help adults with communication issues. I hope to see the development of devices that assist adults with communication issues at all levels, from helping severely impaired people with basic communication to helping less impaired people interpret the subtlety of facial expressions or nuances of spoken meaning.


Proxiehunter said…
I don't know that we quite have the tech to do this yet (but some I-phone apps I've seen tell me it's getting close) but the "autie lenses" in the sci-fi web camic Last Res0rt seem like they'ed be a Godsend to aspies. I know I could use a pair.

According to the author:Footnote: Daisy’s Glasses, affectionately dubbed “Autie Lenses”, do in fact help treat her autistic traits, or at least they used to.

In addition to glare reduction, they also include a small heads-up-display that constantly provides environmental information, including social cues and suggested responses. Over time (and depending on the sensitivity of the user), the display learns what its user wants / needs to see, and eventually as the user adjusts, the lenses provide less coaching and become a smartphone (although critics would claim the distinction doesn’t make it any less of a crutch).

Because of their adaptive features and low profile, Autie Lenses are a common device in the business world as a smartphone, making it incredibly difficult to tell who’s using them because they actually needed the lenses when they were younger, and who’s using them because they just got tired of having so much junk hanging off their belt. Given how both groups are often fircely protective of their lenses, have trouble completing otherwise “simple” tasks without them, and can be difficult to deal with when they’re not wearing them, the difference between the two is academic.

Besides, it’s a 50/50 shot anyway.
Kerry said…
This is a really great, clear picture of the different ways that communication can go awry. I hope the contest is a success.
Hi, John. Here's something really interesting I learned. Bella, my 10 yr old, is pre-verbal. She has been using PECS - grab the little card w/ photo on it - hand it to teacher. We wanted to move her to iPad. But... so many kids with autism have learned to pinch/peel off the velcro board/hand to adult (Picture Exchange System) we are having to TEACH her to point and build her fine motor skills to do so. She's using a GoTalk20 - which has a raised GRID so her finger can wobble around but still hit the word she wants. Technology will change her life - give her communication. It's blissful. I'm glad to see so many keen minds working on this - don't forget to ask NT Moms what works too - which you just did. So thank you! KIM
Anonymous said…
john, this is fabulous.. can't wait to see the results!

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