What is autism and how is technology helping find a cure?

Technology is also helping parents support their autistic children, and Tony Dowling is an excellent example. He tells us how his son – who is ten years old and on the spectrum – uses a tablet as an outlet for his creativity and expression.

“My little boy is all at sea without his technology,” he said. “He has learnt so much from video content, especially as he’s incredibly adept at researching the things he’s interested in. Tech helps him with his creativity and expression, as well as entertainment and education. The intuitive nature of modern tablets and other handhelds makes it very easy for him to pick things up.”

I, Robot


Apps are only the beginning. Robots are also being used in the fight against autism, as Milo (a robot from RoboKind) demonstrates. Milo is a humanoid for educators, therapists and parents to engage with autistic people in a bid to improve their social skills. Targeted at primary-school children, it teaches them how to understand different emotions and expressions, and shows them appropriate ways of behaving and responding in a variety of contexts.

Autistic users look at Milo’s face and identify the emotion displayed by using an iPad, with feedback being recorded through cameras built into the robot’s eyes. At the same time, the user wears a chest monitor that looks for changes in heart rate. This allows a therapist or teacher to address difficulties. According to the company, children working with Milo are engaged 70-80% of the time, compared to 3-10% with standard therapy. 

“Robots are important because a large percentage of children with autism don’t like receiving information and teachings from humans,” said Fred Margolin, CEO of RoboKind. “And it’s already proven that the engagement level that the robot creates is already measured at 20 times that with humans. 

“As well as this, the cost of the robot per intervention – even with a helper – is dramatically less than human therapy, and the higher level of engagement gives the therapist an opportunity to better follow up on the concepts the robot can impart.”

VR and autism

For autistic people, human interaction isn’t the only challenge – adapting to new environments can be extremely stressful. But researchers from the University of the West of England and Michigan State University (MSU) believe that virtual-reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift can help those on the spectrum overcome this issue.

In a study conducted at MSU, researchers recruited 29 autistic adults, provided them with an Oculus Rift to wear and asked them to navigate a 3D environment. They then had to fill out a questionnaire containing 38 questions about their experience using AI. After analysing the responses, the research team found that the participants remained unphased: all of them were happy to use the VR headset, and felt at home in a virtual environment. Crucially, though, their anxiety levels were low and weren’t exacerbated by the VR experience.


Dr Nigel Newbutt, who led the research, says these findings indicate that VR headsets can be used in autism treatment. He told us: “Our research suggests that head-mounted displays might be a suitable space in which to develop specific interventions and opportunities; to practice some skills people with autism might struggle with in the real world. We’re seeking further funding to address this important question – one that has eluded this field to date.”

It will be some time until VR achieves its full potential for such applications, but it’s just one of several areas of research that show how the intelligent application of tech is beginning to make a difference. Indeed, it’s heartening to see that autism is finally beginning to get the wider attention, research and understanding it deserves.

And increasingly, it’s new and emergent technology that’s taking a central role in helping those on the spectrum with the challenges they encounter – turning bits and bytes into new ways of communicating, learning, and dealing with the trials of everyday life.

READ NEXT: What it’s really like living with autism

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