Research focuses on new technology to advance autism training

A pair of KU researchers will soon be exploring how Google’s new headset gadget — Google Glass— can help families dealing with autism who live in remote areas around the world, from western Kansas, to arctic Alaska, even to islands off the coast of Italy.

“It sounds really cool,” says Jay Buzhardt, associate research professor. “But it needs to be able to improve the lives of children and families to be worth it.”

Buzhardt and Linda Heitzman-Powell, research assistant professor at the Center for Child Health and Development, have already pioneered the use of live TV and the Web for long-distance training of the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

Since 2004, they’ve been using video conferencing and Internet modules to train dozens of ASD families remotely in their Online and Applied System for Intervention Skills (OASIS).

Parents get one-on-one training in applied behavior analysis techniques to help them increase their ASD child’s independence skills and reduce disruptive behavior. The program consists of 12 to 16 weekly sessions.

Meanwhile, Heitzman-Powell and Buzhardt are seeking federal grants to explore how Google Glass’s live videocast capabilities could take the OASIS training to another level — by putting the instructional coach remotely into a live situation.

Currently, a parent being trained remotely through OASIS has to be in a room with a computer and a two-way video hookup to get the teleconference training. Google Glass would make the training mobile.

Google Glass can take hands-free 5-megapixel photos and 720p live video, access the Web, and make and receive phone calls and text messages. A computer display is visible over the wearer’s right eye and sound is heard through the frame.

Buzhardt explained that a mom wearing Google Glass during an actual daily routine could get live feedback from an instructional coach, who is getting live video and sound from the mom’s point of view back on his own computer.

The KU researchers plan to formally test Google Glass during the next year in hopes they can integrate it into long-distance training for ASD families.

Heitzman-Powell and Buzhardt are also expanding their program for Kansas’ growing Hispanic population, using a $600,000 three-year federal grant.

The KU researchers are not only translating the OASIS training into Spanish, but also tailoring the behavior management training for Hispanic cultural differences.

Thanks to their work with video and the Web, an OASIS clinic has been established at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City.

The small clinic now serves five families either in person or remotely from across the state, but has a waiting list of between eight and a dozen families. Heitzman-Powell said more funding is needed: Of the 10,635 children with ASD in Kansas, about a third live in rural areas.

“The technology is there. It’s demonstrated its effectiveness. Now we just need the state to make it more widely accessible,” she said.

Their video conferencing and Web training techniques for parents are getting noticed elsewhere. They are working with researchers who want to help ASD families living in remote regions in Alaska, Italy, and Poland.

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