Communication Technology for Autism

Eye tracking software giving a voice to non verbal people.

How can eye tracking technologies help people with neurological conditions lead better lives?

Eye tracking and eye control is a technology that makes it possible for computers to know exactly where the user is looking. When eye tracking and eye control are combined with speech generating devices, communication opportunities are enabled for individuals with special needs.

This can open our eyes and make us understand how to communicate with non verbal people. My own son is minimally verbal. I can see such happiness when we have understood him and sheer frustration when we have not quite been in tune with what he wants.

Not being able to speak and not having anything to say are not the same thing. Just because someone doesn’t communicate with speech in the conventional way does not necessarily mean they don’t have a high level of intelligence. It simply may not be intelligence in the way our society chooses to define it.

Ava is a little girl with Rett syndrome, which is a rare non-inherited genetic postnatal neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls, and leads to severe impairments, affecting nearly every aspect of the child’s life: their ability to speak, walk, eat, and even breathe easily.

Ava has been using assistive technology by Tobii Dynovax which uses gaze technology (eye tracking to select words and sentences and these are then read out). This powerful tool enables her to communicate with family and friends. Watch the video below to see how Ava is using this Tobii Dynovax to enable speech.

Other uses of eye tracking software.

I wanted to find out about the use of eye tracking technology for other neurological conditions. I have seen the amazing effect eye tracking tools have, enabling stroke patients or people who have been paralysed to communicate.

I discovered eye tracking being used as an alternative way to diagnose autism, in the wonderful Ted talk by Ami Kiln. From his research he was able to use eye tracking technology to diagnose autism in babies only months old.

Whilst diagnosing early cannot prevent autism, putting in place early intervention for those children affected can give them the best outcome. We know that the first 3 years of a child’s life is when their brain is most malleable, and therefore treatment most likely to be successful.

Currently the possibility that a child is autistic generally isn’t realised until the age of 18 months or 2, when speech delays are noticed. The diagnosis of autism can be a lengthy process, and the average age of diagnosis is currently about 5.

Eye tracking was recently used to help understand how non verbal people can communicate, in a study by the University of Vermont.

In one of the implicit measures in the study, participants with severe autism heard a word and were asked to match it to one of four images. If their eyes quickly went to one of the images (as in the screen to the right), that signaled it was a known word. It the word was unknown, the eyes flitted from one image to the next (as in the screen to the left). This implicit measure, and two others researchers tested, demonstrated the potential to be more accurate than conventional word assessment approaches, for those with severe autism.

More information can be found on the study here

The future of eye tracking software.

So what about the future for eye tracking technologies…

What about applying eye tracking to help us design software for people with neurological conditions. If we had greater insight into their gaze, we would be able to more intuitively design the technology for them and they could interact, as naturally as possible, with the software.

Eye tracking software has been used by marketers and software development teams on commercial sites, for years, but its application to design and usability testing for people with neurological conditions hasn’t yet been studied much.

The big challenge is analysis of eye movement information. There is going to be a huge growth in the accessibility of eye-tracking devices to clinicians and others,” Eizenman predicts. “It won’t remain the domain of experts.”

For now, couldn’t something on a smaller scale in eye tracking technology be used to compliment something like a PECS (Picture exchange communication system) choice board. For instance, highlighting the item the person seems to be focused on, giving the caregiver a helpful clue and perhaps something to start a conversation around.

In the long term, eye tracking could perhaps provide a way to navigate and interact with software or virtual worlds without touch or voice. This would help keep the person engaged with the tool and provide a better interactive experience.

There is a great deal of potential that could be achieved using eye tracking software, and I am looking forward to seeing future applications make more of this.

Technology for Good is a Community Think Tank for creating and sharing ideas that will help people living with neurological conditions live better lives. We would love you to get in touch or find out more here

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