By Lisa Rapaport
(Reuters Health) - Children with autism may have an easier time reading facial expressions and navigating social interactions when they use Google Glass paired with a smartphone app, a small experiment suggests.
The system, dubbed "Superpower Glass," helps them decipher what's happening with people around them, researchers found.
The experiment included 71 children, ages 6 to 12, who were receiving a standard treatment for autism known as applied behavioral analysis therapy. This type of therapy typically involves using structured exercises like flash cards depicting faces to help kids learn to recognize different emotions.
Forty kids were randomly assigned to use the "Superpower Glass" system - glasses with a camera and speaker that sent information on what children saw and heard to a smartphone app designed to help them decode and respond to social interactions.
While kids with autism can struggle to recognize and respond to emotions, the app gave them feedback in real time to help bolster these skills.
After six weeks of using Superpower Glass in 20-minute sessions four times a week, kids who received this digital support scored better on tests of socialization, communication and behavior than the control group of 31 kids who received only standard care for autism.
With Superpower Glass, "Children learn to seek out social interactions, learn that faces are interesting, and that they can learn what they're saying or what the faces are telling them," said senior study author Dennis Wall of Stanford University in California.
"This is powerful since it encourages social initiations - a form of fostering social motivation - by the child and they're learning that they can get these things - the emotions of their social partners- themselves," Wall said by email.
Superpower Glass is designed to tackle a common struggle for kids with autism - how to understand social cues and use past experiences to learn how to respond in various situations.
The glasses act as a messenger and interpreter, with the app relying on artificial intelligence to offer feedback in real time that can help kids track faces and classify emotions. A green light flashes when kids look at a face, and then the app uses emojis to tell kids what emotion is in front of them, whether it's happy or angry or scared or surprised.
"Facial expressions are complex, dynamic, and unique," said Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development in Durham, North Carolina.
"Emojis are much simpler, static stimuli," Dawson, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email. "It makes sense that emojis would be easier for a person with autism to understand."
Kids' interactions are also logged by the app so parents can look later and talk to kids about how well they did at recognizing and responding to emotions.
"Together these elements of the intervention enable real-life learning," Wall said.
Wall is the founder of Cognoa.com, a company partnering with Stanford to develop digital devices to treat autism.
Google Glass has been controversial because of privacy concerns about how anything recorded might be stored or shared, and the experiment only had children using Superpower Glass at home with close friends or family members.
"The use of technology for autism screening and treatment is still a relatively new area of study, and we have much to learn," Dawson said.
"This approach holds much promise," Dawson added. "But more research is needed to understand whether "Superpower Glass" is feasible in real world settings, how many families would choose to use it, and its impact on social skills in children with autism."
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/2FvEyxA JAMA Pediatrics, online March 26, 2019.