A team at Stanford Medical School has combined facial recognition software with smart glasses to help children with autism identify emotions and facial expressions.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who used the smart glasses while receiving conventional behavioral therapy experienced greater gains in social skills compared with those who received only behavioral therapy, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics.
“My lab has been interested in digital solutions for autism for years. When Google Glass hit the market, it seemed like a perfect tool to address common struggles facing these children, such as making eye contact and recognizing faces,” said Dennis Wall, Ph.D., an associate professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and biomedical data sciences and the lead investigator for this study.
Helping children with ASD recognize emotions is a central part of behavioral therapy. This is typically done by using flash cards of varying facial expressions. But static images capture only a fragment of the ways in which someone can smile or frown and sometimes lead to unwanted associations (such as a child associating facial hair with a certain emotion if a bearded person is the model on a card), according to Wall.
Smart glasses, such as Google Glass, can capture emotions in real time to better guide kids about what they are seeing, he said. Best of all, this training can be done outside of office visits.
The glasses contain a small prism next to the camera that can display emojis within the child’s peripheral vision. The emojis depict one of eight emotions — happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, disgust, “meh,” and neutral — recognized by the facial recognition software.
To make the glasses more engaging, Wall’s team added two social games into the app: a “guess the emotion” game in which children try to correctly identify their caregiver’s facial expression and a “capture the smile” activity in which children are given an emotion and try to elicit that facial expression in their caregiver (like telling a joke to make a happy face).
After some promising pilot studies, the team conducted a trial with 71 children with ASD ages 6 to 12 years; 41 of the children were given the wearable intervention (dubbed Superpower Glass by a focus group of children), and 30 were in the control group.
Both groups received in-person behavioral therapy at home for six weeks. The children using Superpower Glass were instructed to use the device at home for 20 minutes, four times a week: three times with family members and once with their behavioral therapist.
After six weeks, the children using Superpower Glass showed significant improvements in their social behavior compared with children in the control group. Wall said he also received positive feedback from parents on the progress their children had made while using Superpower Glass.
“This justifies further work with these devices in larger and younger groups of children,” Wall said. He added that, ideally, future studies would be with kids who are waiting to start behavioral therapy to see how well they improve with the glasses alone.
If the children can use these glasses while waiting for therapy, they might be better prepared and perhaps need therapy for a shorter time. This would be more cost-effective for parents and also free up time for therapists to see more children, which would start to alleviate the long waiting list.
Source: American Psychiatric Association