Yale lab looks to ‘toys’ to improve life on autism spectrum

Researchers at Yale Child Study Center’s Technology and Innovation Laboratory are using “toys” to conduct ground-breaking research to improve treatment and teaching techniques for those on the autism spectrum and with other developmental disabilities.

Frederick Shic, director of the lab, begun in 2011, said he has a talented, dedicated team working hard to find ways technology can improve outcomes for that special needs population.

“We’re there to make a difference,” Shic said.

Shic said there’s not yet very much empirical evidence that the techniques being tested are effective, and the field of autism research is complicated by the fact that everyone on the spectrum is so different from the other.

Sorting all that out is the team’s objective.

Shic said his team of experts is using robotics, eye-tracking, video games, virtual reality devices and other tools to learn “how we can use what we have to help the child in front of us.”

Part of the objective is to identify the most effective motivation changer, as motivation is key, he said. Technology holds promise, he said, because it’s an area of interest to many, he said.

The research being done at the lab involves children who come to the center and in some cases, the tools are taken to places that serve a population with autism and special needs, including Chapel Haven in New Haven— an award-winning school specializing in independent living —and ASD Fitness Center, a gym in Orange that specializes in physical training of those on the spectrum.

“Researchers are excited about the games, kids love it,” Shic said of the research.

Adam Leapley, founder of the ASD Fitness Center, said the center’s collaboration with Shic’s lab is fabulous.
“We are confident Dr. Shic and his team can enhance the lives of our ASD Fitness clients and their families using their next generation of technology tools,” Leapley said.

In the times the lab team has visited with the technology, the tools have already proved to be a “great new way to measure the progress and positive changes that our clients receive through structured fitness training,” he said.

Shic described some of the technology being used at the lab.

Use of eye-tracking devices show where the subject is looking while certain stimuli is viewed and then it is analyzed through a program that shows where typical children are looking when the same stimuli is presented. Shic said if the tracking shows the person with a disability is not looking where typical children look, then they might examine ways to redirect the look.

Shic said they are looking at whether eye tracking is a measure of monitoring behavior and even clinical changes caused by medications.

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