Two children with autism try out the Brain Power wearable system. (Brain Power)
Google may have shelved their smart glasses for now, but a Massachusetts based startup has designed an app for Google Glass they claim will help kids with autism better recognize social cues.
Children with autism can have a hard time making eye contact when interacting and that can mean they miss out on a lot of information that could help them gauge how loud to speak or if someone is in discomfort.
“This lack of connection sets off an anti-cascade of behaviors,” said Dr. Ned Sahin, a neuroscientist and founder of Brain Power, a Google Glass app. “When they don’t pick up on these cues, they don’t get attention and they are left out of social engagement.”
Sahin’s company is building software and hardware add-ons for Google Glass that they hope will help children with autism learn some of these social skills and help provide caregivers with feedback. It's still early for the app, clinical trials on the product begin this fall at Harvard Medical School and the program is currently in beta testing.
Sahin studied language development in his cognitive neuroscience PhD research at Harvard, but only became interested in applications for autism two years ago while attending a conference at MIT.
Sitting in the audience wearing his Google glass, Sahin said that the onstage discussion about the neurological challenges of autism sparked his idea for Brain Power. According to Sahin, Google Glass is the ideal device for addressing neurodevelopment issues.
Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh, a psychiatrist, and vice president of the company, explained that desktops, smartphones, and tablets are difficult for kids to disengage from once they’re hooked.
“They love getting immersed, and they go into their own digital world. But then how do you get the kid with his head down, playing on the smartphone, to re-engage?"
"Many children with autism can’t handle transitions well, so they crash emotionally when you try to take it away,” he said.
Brain Power claims its technology demonstrates measurable improvements in eye contact and documented decreased emotional stress. The company also says that the app also generates data that parents and teachers can track to see a child’s responses and progress.
When a child is getting agitated — maybe he/she begins a repetitive behavior, or stops an activity abruptly — the glass detects the distress and sends an alert to nearby caregivers. If an impending meltdown is indicated by the predictive analytics, the visual display and auditory system can intervene with calming visuals and music, customized to the child’s preferences. However, according to Brain Power, the programs are ultimately training kids in self-regulation.
“The idea is that kids can use it for about two hours a day. Like practicing the piano, it helps them develop skills that will benefit them at any time,” said Sahin.
Sara Gaynor, a special education teacher in Boston, brought her 11-year-old autistic son, Sean Novick, to test out Brain Power’s software at a public demo day. She was skeptical that he would even wear a Google Glass, since he, like many autistic kids, is sensitive to head accessories.
"He put them on, though, and I was amazed. A light switch went on, and he was so happy,” she said. Gaynor says her son’s eye contact improved immediately, and he was able to get the attention and focus from adults that he craves.
Earlier this summer, the Brain Power team kicked off a national RV tour to demo the product at schools and community centers.
“This was our way of reaching communities that may not usually have access to beta testing of digital products,” said Vahabzadeh, who is opening the West Coast branch of Brain Power this fall.