June 11, 2013
Eye contact for children with autism is frustrating. We are so used to having people look you in the eye, if only for a brief time, to acknowledge that they are paying attention and not drifting off into some other thought. It's also a known sign of autism to have someone refuse to look you in the eye. I noticed that with my sons, both of which would be hesitant to look you in the eye if they don't know you. For years, those of us in the autism community thought it was because they just couldn't do it.
But, according to LiveScience, kids with autism avoid eye contact because they process more in their peripheral vision. That is, they don't process stuff by looking right at you, but rather from the side.
Brain scans of children with autism vs. neurotypical children have shown that the brain's cortex of a child with autism is more active with peripheral vision, while those neurotypical children are more active with objects in their direct field of vision. So by not looking at us directly, our children with autism have been gathering more information than if they were forced to look at us directly.
For the past five years, I have been working hard to get my oldest to look me in the eye, and at times he can do it. Now I find out that the exercise is less advantageous for him based on this study! The study also sets forth the hypothesis that social withdrawal is a learned process associated with not looking directly into the eyes of those around us. We withdraw from the child with autism because we think they have withdrawn, and it starts a vicious circle of learned social separation.
It's important to note that this is still all hypothetical, and the study needs additional peer review, but it's an interesting development. It could impact a lot of what we think we know about autism and limitations, and could expand a whole new set of skills for those on the spectrum.
June 10, 2013
The Apple Keynote just completed at WWDC, and there was a lot of exciting things announced. The Macbook Air will now have all day battery life, which is something I've wanted in a laptop for a long time. OS X will be named Mavericks, having run out of big cats, and has a lot of awesome new features. OS X Server has some new features like Cache Server and Xcode Server, which look very exciting. iOS 7 looks awesome, clean, and has quite a few new services that make sharing easy between devices. And, of course, the new Mac Pro teaser to keep us excited about this new device.
First, let me talk about the few points that I really like that was revealed:
- iOS 7: Everything about iOS 7 looks awesome. I like the new design, I like the new direction. It's definitely different, more modern-looking, but won't alienate any long time users that I can see. It's an upgrade to make one glad to own an iOS device. The cool thing is that it's compatible with iPhone 4 and later, and iPad 2 and later. That means a lot of people are going to be very happy with this new upgrade.
- OS X Mavericks: The name isn't that big of a deal, I suppose, but it's odd to think the big cats are gone. Still, the back end upgrades are great, and I'm looking forward to using the new OS.
- OS X Server on OS X Mavericks: This one was not directly mentioned in the keynote that I recall, but after perusing the website I found a little blurb about it. And while I'm a big fan of OS X Server in general, the Xcode Server was pretty exciting, and the Caching Server caching your app downloads was pretty cool too. I'm looking forward to seeing the server in action.
- Macbook Air: Performance hasn't always been a concern for my laptop usage. Generally I'm showing stuff either on a server, through a Keynote presentation, or editing documents. Occasionally I'll do some video editing in Final Cut Pro X, but not much. So the real news here for me was the battery life. 9 hours for the 11 inch, and 12 hours for the 13 inch! That's huge battery life boosts, and makes traveling and working on a laptop that much easier. Granted, I've started migrating a lot of my laptop usage to iPad, but it's awesome to see that when it calls for a laptop, Macbook Air will have the juice when I need it.
- The New Mac Pro: I don't have a Mac Pro. I haven't had a tower since my last beige beast running Linux died. Since then it's been laptops or our iMac, with plans to get a Mac Mini Server should we ever need one. Part of that is because of the cost, I just can't justify a $2500 computer, no matter the performance. But this one, reminiscent of the G4 Cube in a way, gave me pause for thought. It looks awesome, and running OS X it will perform well. The design is radical. I look forward seeing more about it.
- iWork in the Cloud: Awesome. Just awesome. Finally, editing your documents on the go from any computer, any browser. This is what I wanted in iWork for a long time, and we finally got it.
Okay, those are general impressions, now let's talk about iOS 7 specifics. I mentioned that I love the clean design, which I do. With less visual clutter, it lets you focus on the task at hand. But what's more, the new features that I love are Control Center, changes to Multitasking, AirDrop, and iTunes Radio.
- Control Center: One frustration I have had for a while is trying to quickly change WiFi settings in iOS. You can't, unless you are already in your Settings. Control Center changes that, and it looks great. It's obviously an answer to "what about sound/brightness/audio controls with the new multitasking tools?", and it's better than what we currently have. I like the swipe up from the bottom for access, I like that it takes up a lot of room so you have more room for tools. All in all, it's a great piece of work. Well done Apple!
- Multitasking: This is definitely way better than prior iterations. It's somewhat reminiscent of WebOS in a way, if anyone remembers. I liked the way WebOS handled multitasking, so it's exciting to see something similar show up here. I can't wait to see it in action.
- AirDrop: This is huge, this is what makes an iOS device more like a computer, and less like a phone or tablet. Sending files from any application to someone else using AirDrop changes a lot, simplifying the process of sharing files with others. Granted, they need to have a compatible iOS or Mac device, but still, it's a huge step forward. Next, AirDrop for Windows/Linux maybe?
- iTunes Radio: I love music, and I love a lot of music, I just don't much care for most of the popular stuff out there. My tastes are very specific, so I've been relegated to apps like Pandora and Last.FM to listen to new music. It's been great, but makes a wish list for that music more complicated. iTunes Radio fixes that, simplifying the process of marking music for purchase later.
So that's it for first impressions. But what about my disappointments?
- Apple TV: I didn't see anything about the Apple TV. Perhaps I'm just anxious, and any new news about the Apple TV will come in the Fall with the new iOS devices, but I wanted to hear some news about the Apple TV getting an app store. Here's hoping!
- New Server Hardware: Still no new server hardware. To date it was pretty much left up to the Mac Pro and the Mac Mini, but with the new design of the Mac Pro, it's clear Apple doesn't want it in a rack, but on a desk. That leaves just the Mac Mini, which requires third party hardware to mount in a rack (though three in the same rack, so that's something). There's so much more that could be done, but I guess it's just not meant to be.
June 9, 2013
May 31, 2013
Article first published as A Clinical Use for Google Glass: Diagnosing Autism? on Technorati.
Not long ago I posted an article questioning the usefulness of Google Glass for those with autism. Using it as intended, those with autism (and other disabilities) would have difficulty interacting with the device.
But then I read an article outlining research that uses eye-tracking technology to diagnose autism. It appears that children with autism move their gaze more slowly, and therefore even with babies as young as 7 months old, an autism diagnosis can be made by tracking eye movements.
Of course, this is all well and good, but technology currently used to measure eye movement can be expensive, cumbersome, and not very mobile. Enter Google Glass. Eye tracking is built into the device, though it is only looking for specific movements. Should the device be significantly open enough to allow access to the eye tracking technology, it's possible some enterprising software developer could turn Google Glass into an eye-tracking diagnosis tool for any doctor, specialist, or parent.
Eye tracking studies are not new in autism research. Zillah Boraston and Sara-Jayne Blakemore published a paper in the Journal of Physiology outlining the application of eye-tracking technology in the study of autism (6 Jun 2007, Vol. 581, Issue 3, pages 893-898). In the past autism research and eye tracking has targeted focus points, finding that those with autism tend avoid the eye region of the face (therefore lack of eye contact). The same research has been applied to mirroring emotions in others (Dapretto et al, Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders, Nature Neuroscience 9, p.28-30, 2005). But to date this is the first case of tracking the speed of eye movements and it's relationship to autism that I've read.
So, perhaps there is a use for Google Glass in the world of autism after all, if only a use for clinicians and not directly for those with autism. It would be fascinating to see how this research progresses, and if Google Glass becomes a very useful tool in identifying those children who will need autism support services.
May 28, 2013
Autism is confusing, frustrating, and often misleading when looking from the outside in. Trying to understand someone else with autism is difficult, because you have to understand what they know versus what they repeat, what they learn versus what they don't, and what they can do versus what they can't. In the past five years since my oldest son was diagnosed, I thought I would go mad. Everyone had a theory, everyone had something to say, nothing seemed to be remotely relevant to the situation my family was in.
Fortunately I had a few tools that have managed to bring focus to my life as I wrestle with the enigma that is autism in my family.
- Google Scholar: The Internet is a rather vast place, and perhaps the best example of ordered anarchy. As such, everyone with any kind of supposition, theory, or guess is able to publish to others who are willing to accept that "information" as truth. Fortunately Google has provided Google Scholar, a repository for searching scholarly journal articles that are peer reviewed. Of course, you do need to have access to those journals in order to read the research in their entirety, which is why it's so useful to work for a University. With this resource, I have been able to find out the myriad research points about autism being done, and just how credible they are based on the evidence.
- Blogging: Blogging is more than a cathartic method of releasing frustrations, concerns, or sharing news. For me, it's been a useful method of getting feedback from industry leaders, concerned parents, and even proponents of various other theories regarding autism therapy and research. I've also been able to share my experiences.
Another aspect of blogging is reading other blog entries of other family members, parents, social workers, psychologists, neuro-psychologists, pediatricians, and therapists who experience the world of autism first hand, and share their expertise.
- Technorati.com: When Technorati first offered to allow me to post directly to their news as a specialist in the Lifestyle Family section, I was blown over! I had no idea just how popular my blog had become, and how many people were following it. It was thrilling to know they wanted me as a contributor. It's been helpful to widen my reach with posts, get the word out there, share with others, and hear from so many it there.
- Facebook: I never thought I would have believed it, having had so many negative experiences with students using social media while in class (hint: not a good thing to do with your teacher), but Facebook has become a useful source of news and information about autism, autism research, and autism therapies. It's still some sifting through chaff to get to the good kernels, but still a great sauce of information.
- Twitter: Just like Facebook, Twitter has provided some good information about autism, though still requiring sifting.
- Google News: A lot of good sources can come through Google News, with a special search for autism. A lot less sifting, so that means more time reading up in scholarly journals.
- Google +: Another unexpected source of relevant information, Google + has become a valuable tool in learning about research, therapies, and keeping in contact with families from all over the world.
Without these sources from which to refer, I would have been lost in the sea of uncertainty that first enveloped me when my son was diagnosed. Sure, you can read Piget and his developmental psychologist theories, spend hours in a bookshop looking at this book or that, but how do you know which source is accurate, and which is just looking to make money from a demographic desperate for answers? It's so nice to have real sources and science on your side, if only to point out that there are no answers...yet.
May 18, 2013
First posted on Technorati as Could Google Glass Work for Someone with Autism?
Google Glass has been in the news quite a bit lately, with concerns about privacy, the "cool" factor, and some businesses already wanting to ban the thing before it hits mainstream.
Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, praised Glass for it's more socially acceptable use over smartphones.
Glass reacts to your eye movement, finger gestures on the side, or voice commands. The video Google provides is pretty compelling, with lots of exciting things being done and hands-free computing being done at the same time.
But it got me thinking: could someone with autism use Google Glass? Could someone with a disability use Glass?
Smartphones can be very enabling in many cases. Apple, for one, uses Voiceover to make it possible to use an iOS device if you are blind. And while Android doesn't seem to have the same technology built in, there are code projects that are available for download. Being able to interact with the device directly with or without looking at it is ideal. Can Glass do the same thing?
A marketing professor at Gallaudet University (a University for the deaf and hard of hearing) presented the Google Glass demonstration videos to his Intro to Marketing classes. The response was almost unanimous: It wasn't deaf friendly. Anything that requires spoken word for interaction would be unaccessible to someone who communicates through sign language. That means that this current iteration of Glass at least would only provide minimum support for someone who doesn't communicate verbally.
But could it be used by someone with autism? Smartphones and tablets have been adopted with gusto by the autism community, because they are intuitive to use and allow persons on the spectrum who cannot communicate verbally interact with their world. The capacitive screen allows for accuracy without an implement beyond the human finger, and the display is a natural place to look when "reading".
Now take Glass.
- Glass uses eye-tracking technology, not a useful bit of tech for someone who has a hard time with eye contact as is common with those with autism.
- Glass can use voice commands, but if you don't speak, it's not much use.
- Glass can use finger gestures on the side, but it requires more fine motor skills than touching a tablet, and a direct correlation between what you see and what you do. While this is natural with the keyboard and mouse crowd, a tablet is far more useful in this regard, you are "touching" the "thing" with which you interact, not touching an interface point on the side of your head when the thing is in front of you.
- Glass requires something to touch you. That alone is a deal breaker with a community that is known for it's sensitivity to sensory events. Speaking for my children alone, I think it would be difficult to get my eldest to wear it at all.
There would be a lot of hurdles to overcome in order to make Glass accessible to someone with autism. But once accessible, would it be of benefit? Honestly, I can't see a situation when using Glass would help someone with autism beyond displaying social stories in real time with an augmented reality (which would be awesome!).
If given the choice, right now, I don't think I would recommend anyone get Google Glass for someone with autism, at least until the interface is worked out. And even then, only if an augmented reality app was invented with built-in social stories based on location were available. Given that as the killer autism app, it would be worth a look. But given a choice between a tablet and Glass? The tablet's versatility wins hands down.
May 6, 2013
I don't know what it is about the ocean. It's big, it's vast, it's wet, and it's fascinated me ever since I first stepped foot in the Pacific back in 1993. Since then I have been swimming and body surfing, but one thing I have always wanted to do was sail.
Perhaps it's the ancestral Scottish blood that speaks when I look at the sailboats, or perhaps it's the thought of being able to cross vast bodies of water with nothing but the wind to push you along, but I have dreamed of getting a sailboat and sailing. But, in order to even think about that, I first need to have experience.
Last Saturday (May 4th), our scout troop went boating in Mission Bay. We went to the San Diego Youth Aquatic Center on Fiesta Island and rented three kayaks, three canoes three sailboats, and one motorboat to chase after any wayward boats for 16 boys and six leaders. It was $30 per boat, and each boat really only held two people, or three little scouts.
We started with the canoes and kayaks, taking the boys out and watching them try to maneuver. They got a handle on it eventually, but spent a lot of time downwind in a little bay. Eventually the scouts got more interested in swimming in the warm water (at least 70 degrees in the bay) than boating. We broke for Lunch, and then started out on the sailboats.
After a 10 minute introduction to sailing, and a little time rigging up a sailboat, I was sent out with one of the scouts to give it a try. We managed to tack without a problem a couple of times, but once trying to turn while going full out the sail de-rigged itself and left us stranded. The scout did a great job holding us into the wind as I re-rigged the sailboat, and we were off again. After that I took him back to the shore and set off with a another scout.
Sailing is pretty awesome. It's a balance of controlling the sail to keep it in the wind just enough to fill the sail and get forward thrust, while not letting it out too much as to unballance the boat (we were on little 10 footers) to tip it over. You are controlling the mainsheet and the rudder at the same time, and it's a blast. We sailed to one end to the other in the small part of Mission Bay, and enjoyed it. I was told I had managed to earn my Sailing merit badge (assuming I were still young enough to earn them).
Then the scout took over to practice. He did pretty good with the first tack, but when turning back we caught a gust of wind, the mainsheet got caught, and it flipped us into the water. I tell you, my Lifeproof case got a workout that day, as I treaded water and we worked to get the boat back upright again. Incase any of you are wondering, yes, the Lifeproof case worked perfectly, even in three feet of water.
So, did the dunking discourage me from wanting to sail? No, other than I was freezing once I got out of the water (windchill is crazy). But it was time to go, so we started cleaning up and putting the boats away. But I got caught up with the fun of sailing, the simple joy, and the sheer fun of sailing. When I got home, I immediately wanted to look up sailboats, pricing, and so on. Not that I can afford to buy a boat (for now), and not that my wife would be too thrilled to have a sailboat anyway (for now), but it caught my imagination.
For those who have never tried sailing, try it! It's fun, it's not as difficult as you might think (it's just physics), and once you get the feel of it, it's pretty close to being just as fun as riding a motorcycle.
April 30, 2013
Article first published as Voice4U Special Offer: AAC app for Professionals on Technorati.
I've posted before about applications available on iOS in the past that were useful to helping children with autism communicate and learn. Some have focused on learning life skills, such as Look In My Eyes, or others have been on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Most often, they are apps that I have either read about or managed to try myself. Rarely do I get the opportunity or pleasure to have a company make a special offer to all professionals who are looking for an app to recommend.
Today, I got one. Yumi Kubo, co-founder of Spectrum Visions Global, Inc. sent me an email regarding their product, Voice4u. The App, an AAC application, has received general positive reviews from what I can see. Yumi made me aware of a program where they grant licenses for their product to NPO's, therapists, and school teachers for free. You can find more information here, and sign up for a free license.
But why is this such a big deal? Well, mobile devices have made a huge difference in the world of autism. Their impact has spawned events such as the AT&T-Autism Speaks Mobile App Hackathon, headlined this year by reigning Miss Montana and former Miss America contestant Alexis Wineman, which focuses on developing mobile applications to assist those with autism. Parents and autism specialists have gravitated to tablets as tools to help their children communicate, learn, and display their intelligence.
Tablets, particularly capacitive display tablets like iPad, Xoom, or the Galaxy Tab, present a simple gross-motor interface (using a pointed finger to "touch" something) in order to relate that event to something directly. For instance, a child with autism can touch a picture of a cat and have the tablet say "cat" for them. It requires less translation between action and result than, say, a keyboard which requires you to hit a key and expect a result. Add to the fact that these tablets and phones are more mobile than a full blown computer, and you have a great combination.
Applications merely translate this gross motor behavior into the desired result. With AAC applications, you can tap a picture to have the word "said" for you. Some will let you drag your pictures into a "sentence", and then you can play that sentence. Others will convert text to speech, encourage looking someone in the eye, or provide learning events as games to engage the student. These mobile devices may have unlocked the door, but the applications make all the difference.
But the elephant in the room is the cost of the application. Even for a trial run, you have to purchase the app. And AAC or other autism-specific applications are not inexpensive. They range from the most expensive (and comprehensive) app at $189.00 to others that are free, but require several in-app purchases to be made extensive. It's nice to see these apps issued free to those professionals in need of the free trial for evaluation, so they can with confidence offer that same application to parents.
April 19, 2013
I love to wear my jeans when I can. They provide protection while on the bike, feel comfortable when out and about, and are generally my favorite color (blue). Little did I know, there was an International day to wear them. April 24th.
It's not because they are stylish, or because they are comfortable, or because they are blue. But rather, apparently, the Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction because the victim was wearing tight jeans at the time of the assault. The justices stated that the woman must have helped her attacker remove her jeans, therefore inferring consent. This ruling came down April 24th, 1999.
Because of this outrageous ruling, wearing jeans on the anniversary of this day has become a symbol of protest against sexual violence, and the destructive attitudes that stigmatize the victims. The UCSD Women's Center has asked that the staff, faculty and students show their support by wearing denim on this day.
So for those of you who don't generally wear denim, April 24th is the day to do it. If you normally wear denim, for that date at least you can wear denim for a cause. Sexual violence is a cancer that needs to stop, and those who erroneously believe the victims "deserve it" need to be reeducated. I ask that you all wear your jeans in support of this ideal. Let's be comfortable for a cause.
April 15, 2013
The BBC is reporting the success of "growing" laboratory kidneys and implanting them in living animals, with the result of creating urine. This is huge news, and shows progress in one very important area: transplant organs.
Organ transplants remain a very complicated procedure, with the need of finding donors, matching them to needy recipients, and doctors having the difficulty having to prioritize need for the very limited supply of donor organs. Being able to "grow" organs from stem cells has been a holy grail for transplant doctors, because it would mean being able to grow a replacement organ from a patient's own stem cells that works properly without worrying about rejection. Because even if there is a great match for donation, there is a limit on how long the organ will remain viable with anti-rejection drugs.
Many of my friends and family know that my wife is a living donor, having donated a kidney to her brother when we were married for 6 months. It was an ordeal for all of us, but her brother is alive and well with a working kidney. But to think that he could have his own kidney, fully functioning, no anti-rejection pills, that's something that I think would be fabulous.
The donation process was an amazing process, bringing the whole family closer together as we looked for ways to help my brother in law and my wife through the ordeal. I wouldn't want to take that process of closeness, bonding, and connection away from anyone. But I can't wait until those who need kidneys, hearts, lungs, livers, etc. will no longer need to wait for years on a waiting list, or search through family members for close matches, and can have the life-saving transplant in a matter of months. This is an exciting time, and it makes me hopeful for the future!