The Autism ASSIST Project (Aiding and SuStaining Independence through Smart-home Technology) has been awarded $49,292 in funding as a result of the UNSW Ageing Futures 2020 seed funding grant program. This project will look at existing smart technology use by autistic adults living independently and through a co-design process, develop and evaluate a smart platform for increasing independence in daily life.
This project is in collaboration with Dr David Silvera from the CSIRO, where have recently finished our first exploratory study with Kaspar and 3 autistic boys under the age of 5. The first stage was led by myself at the Creative Robotics Lab and the final 2 studies were carried out between a psychologist and children in a clinical therapy space. In addition to engaging the specialist knowledge of a therapist to lead the study, this allowed us to conduct the research in an environment that was familiar to each child and therefore less overwhelming or overstimulating. In these studies, Kaspar was used as a ‘peer’ in social story activities.
Social stories were developed as a targeted approach for each child in consultation with their parents. We began the process by developing activities relevant to each child, to introduce social and communication skills in a context specific to the child. During the subsequent clinical sessions, Kaspar would be used as a tool for facilitating these stories. In therapy where a peer (such as another child) might be used to help an autistic child learn social interaction skills, we believe Kaspar could be a useful scaffolding tool to prepare some children for this kind of interaction. Where the interaction of a human can be ambiguous and complex, the responses of Kaspar are clear and repeatable.
With the positive response we received from the children and their parents, we hope to expand the research through collaboration with autism services and practitioners.
Kaspar is a humanoid social robot, designed by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire to support autistic children with social communication and interactions. Led by Dr David Silvera-Tawil (CSIRO and UNSW), the Creative Robotics Lab (CRL) have a Kaspar robot on hand to conduct research examining the usefulness of a humanoid robot as a tool for enacting Social Stories.
Social Stories are a tool that Dr David Silvera-Tawil and Dr Scott Brown are using to help autistic children scaffold their social interactions in a controlled space, before applying these skills with other children. In collaboration with each child’s parents or carers, an individual plan is made for the child to ‘practice’ interactions or other social skills that the child may be having difficulty with. By enacting these with or alongside Kaspar, the child can experience and learn these skills through an interaction that is repeatable and manages expectations.
Kaspar has been designed to limit ambiguity in facial expressions and behaviour. Unlike humans whom often behave in unexpected or unclear ways, a programmable robot is thought to be a useful ‘stepping stone’ to more complex and demanding social interactions.
Silvera-Tawil and Brown have found that Kaspar can be most helpful as a supporting or mediating tool in clinical settings. As a presence for a clinician to refer to, or use to prime a child for other tasks, Kaspar shows promise. The researchers are currently looking to build on this exploratory study and welcome enquiries for collaboration and further development.
On 2nd April 2016, I led a collaborative community event between UNSW Art & Design and the Autism CRC group based at UNSW Medicine, titled Autism MeetUp. We wanted to showcase all the different research projects across these two faculties at UNSW, as well as giving the autism community a chance to come and meet us in person. The event was very successful with over 70 autistic children and adults, family members, carers/support people and health professionals in attendance. See some pictures below from the event.
We promoted the event to coincide with World Autism Awareness Day and be held on a quiet day on the UNSW Paddington campus. The concept behind the event was to allow visitors to:
Wander around and have a look at a number of different stands, which contain information about different research projects;
Talk to the researchers in a relaxed, informal and friendly environment;
Share ideas and feedback about the different projects;
Sign up for a research project which may be of interest; and
Share ideas about what the group should be researching.
We asked visitors to provide us with feedback on the event. Happily, 94% of people who gave feedback were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the event and said they were ‘likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ to attend the event if it was run again.
Here were some of the comments left by attendees at Autism MeetUp:
“(I liked the) casual and approachable atmosphere. Engaging researchers who are clearly committed to furthering our knowledge base.”
“(I liked) being able to move freely amongst various tables, meeting and chatting… As an advocate, parents benefit from open opportunities like this to get the sense of support, and information exchange between parents, looking forward to future events.”
“It was good to meet some of the younger researchers and discuss their projects… It was refreshing to be exposed to newer ideas, some brought about of course by increasing medical technology”
The Responsive Dome Environment (RDE) is the central design artefact that has been produced as a result of Scott Brown’s PhD research. This space was developed over several iterations, based on the situated feedback of autistic and neurotypical children and their parents.
As the site for non-directed and playful interactions, the RDE allowed children to develop an understanding of their agency through explicitly mapped feedback of the lighting and sound system around the dome-like structure.
The structure and aesthetic considerations of the audio visual system around the RDE both contained the interaction space and created an environment that was welcoming and controlled. This assisted with growing the relationship between the participants and researcher, with children and their parents returning for three stages of the RDE study over 12 months.
In the final iteration of the RDE, the mapping of feedback between the interface and system output was disrupted over time. This led to observable and repeatable triggers toward social interaction between child and parent, for example, the child asking their parent for assistance or clarification on why the system no longer responded as they would expect.
These behaviours have led to the primary outcome of Scott Brown’s PhD thesis, as an interaction design research approach to eliciting feedback from neurodiverse groups. Brown plans on expanding upon this research, both through further studies using this research method and continued development of the RDE as an experiential environment for neurodivergent children.