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Yale lab looks to 'toys' to improve life on autism spectrum
PAM MCLOUGHLIN, New Haven Register
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Researchers at Yale Child Study Center's Technology and Innovation Laboratory are using "toys" to conduct ground-breaking research to improve treatment and teaching techniques for those on the autism spectrum and with other developmental disabilities.
Frederick Shic, director of the lab, begun in 2011, said he has a talented, dedicated team working hard to find ways technology can improve outcomes for that special needs population.
"We're there to make a difference," Shic said.
Shic said there's not yet very much empirical evidence that the techniques being tested are effective, and the field of autism research is complicated by the fact that everyone on the spectrum is so different from the other.
Sorting all that out is the team's objective.
Shic said his team of experts is using robotics, eye-tracking, video games, virtual reality devices and other tools to learn "how we can use what we have to help the child in front of us."
Part of the objective is to identify the most effective motivation changer, as motivation is key, he said. Technology holds promise, he said, because it's an area of interest to many, he said.
The research being done at the lab involves children who come to the center and in some cases, the tools are taken to places that serve a population with autism and special needs, including Chapel Haven in New Haven— an award-winning school specializing in independent living —and ASD Fitness Center, a gym in Orange that specializes in physical training of those on the spectrum.
"Researchers are excited about the games, kids love it," Shic said of the research.
Adam Leapley, founder of the ASD Fitness Center, said the center's collaboration with Shic's lab is fabulous.
"We are confident Dr. Shic and his team can enhance the lives of our ASD Fitness clients and their families using their next generation of technology tools," Leapley said.
In the times the lab team has visited with the technology, the tools have already proved to be a "great new way to measure the progress and positive changes that our clients receive through structured fitness training," he said.
Shic described some of the technology being used at the lab.
Use of eye-tracking devices show where the subject is looking while certain stimuli is viewed and then it is analyzed through a program that shows where typical children are looking when the same stimuli is presented. Shic said if the tracking shows the person with a disability is not looking where typical children look, then they might examine ways to redirect the look.
Shic said they are looking at whether eye tracking is a measure of monitoring behavior and even clinical changes caused by medications.
Shic said they also use virtual reality technologies so they can create scenes and examine where the subject's head moves while looking at social scenes, then see how they engage, in part by looking at head movement. Researchers analyzing the reaction then manipulate aspects of the scene to see what works best for the individual in terms of teaching engagement. This could be helpful in learning about individual preferences, he said.
"If we help them attend to the environment will it improve" real life situations? Shic said. "It's a quality of life issue for the children, for the families."
Robots also hold promise in the lab, Shic said. Sphero, a robot-shaped like a ball, is helpful because how a child plays with a robot says a lot about developmental ability, including the social aspect, highly affected by autism. Children can play rough with Sphero and it never gets hurt, Shic said.
"I was impressed with the way kids played (with Sphero). It would be very profound deploying a robot in house," Shic said.
Another robot at the lab, L-E the Robot, "makes a lot of mistakes," so children have to correct it— and it can help teach children how to interact better, Shic said.
Video games are a way to test executive functioning and other abilities and so they have created "YIKES" or Yale Interactive Kinect Environment System.
Shic said they use the system to study anxiety in children, as well as "the emotional process in autism."
The structure involved with games also works as a tool for researchers to look at inhibitory control and shifts in processing, Shic said.
The lab also has a pictogram room and uses a sensory toy box that can be customized to look at a child's responses to their environment.
iPads are used, especially in the area of speech and communication, Shic said.
Katarzyna Chawarska, who wears many hats at Yale Child Study Center and Yale University School of Medicine, including as a co-director and collaborator at the Technology and Innovation Laboratory, said although it can be a long route from ground-breaking technological advancements to clinical applications, Shic's lab is "well positioned to be at the forefront of this movement."
"The work in his lab holds tremendous promise for improving quality of life of individuals with autism across life-span, from infants to adults," Chawarska said.
Chawarska, also director of Yale Early Social Cognition Lab and Yale Toddler Developmental Disabilities Clinic, said she is "particularly excited about his work on the development of a new generation of screeners for autism in infancy.
She said the screeners "rely on sophisticated computational and statistical models of development of autism symptoms, can be delivered in a very limited amount of time, are very parent-friendly and do not require parents to be experts on child development to report reliably on their child's behaviors."
She said such screeners help close "the one- to two-year gap between onset of autism symptoms and the time it is now diagnosed and treated in most children."
Shic said none of the ground-breaking work being done at the lab would happen without an "amazing" team of researchers and experts in many fields, including robotics.
"They are some of the most driven, passionate people you've ever met," Shic said. "The enormity of the talent is a blessing."
Shic said he grew up as a "restaurant kid"— meaning his Chinese parents owned a restaurant —and he played many video games to pass the time. He has one brother, who is now a medical doctor.
Married with two children, Shic, an Orange resident, said growing up he felt awkward socially at times.
Shic, who is also co-director of Yale Early Social Cognition Laboratory, and an assistant professor, began his career after graduating from California Institute of Technology, as a video games creator.
Shic said he found himself working 100 hours a week, and sleeping under his desk, but making mad money— more than he knew what to do with.
At some point he had an epiphany, he said, and realized if he was going to work so many hours that he slept under the desk, it should be for something more meaningful.
"It was too much for too little when the end product was to make money," he said.
He wound up attending graduate school at Yale in 2005 and he became enthralled with exploring the core questions related to autism. Chawarska became one of his mentors.
"By the time I graduated, there was no doubt I was going to do the autism lab," Shic said. "This is worth sleeping under a desk for."
Information from: New Haven Register, http://www.nhregister.com
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