MAS.962 ::Autism Theory and Technology

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Prof Cynthia Breazeal, Prof. Rosalind Picard, Prof. Sherry Turkle, Postdoc Rana el Kaliouby


Course Administrator: Lisa Lubarr, E15-443f, 617.253.0369, llubarr "at"

MIT course MAS.962
Spring 2006, Tuesdays 2:00-4:00pm
Location: Orange & Green Conference Room E15-468 (see MIT campus map)



Computers, like many individuals with autism, do not naturally have the ability to interpret socio-affective cues such as tone of voice or facial expression. Similarly, computers do not naturally have people sense - common sense about people and the way they operate. When people or machines fail to perceive, understand and act upon social-emotional information, then they are hindered in their ability to interact. For example, deciding when to approach someone, when to interrupt, or when to wind down an interaction, all depend upon knowing how to read and respond appropriately to human social-emotional cues. Inability to read and respond to such cues also affects ability to learn since social-emotional cues are often used to guide attention, reduce complexity, and provide reward or punishment. Inabilities in these areas can also lead to problems in the development of relationships, misunderstandings in communication, and overall increases in frustration arising from long-term non-empathetic interaction. Our research aims to change the nature of technology so that it can sense, respond and communicate social-emotional information, and develop general skills of people sense. In so doing, we have a lot to learn from people with autism, from progress they have made, and from the friends, families, and staff who work with these individuals developing successful strategies for coping with the dynamic interactive challenges of the real world. But our interest goes significantly beyond learning from people with autism and building technology that is less autistic.


This course will lay a foundation in autism theory and autism technology that significantly leverages and expands the Media Lab's ability to pioneer new technology. Students will not only develop new technologies, but also understand, help, and learn from people with autism, a fast-growing group that the CDC identified in the year 2005 as involving an estimated 1 in 150 school age children ages 6-21. Students will gain an understanding of the basic challenges faced by people with autism, together with their families and caregivers, and with an understanding of the fundamental theories that inform therapies and technologies for improving the autistic experience. The course will also explore the converging challenges and goals of autism research and the development of technologies with people sense. We will advance ways technology can be used for early detection and intervention in autism. We will enable new technologies for measuring behavior in people with autism, to enable better theory development through more systematic collection of behavior.

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-04/03/2007 Reminder: we will leave for the Groden Center in Providence at 9 a.m. sharp next Tuesday morning. Please

aim to meet in front of the Media Lab by 8:45 a.m. if you have confirmed with Lisa that you are riding with us.

-03/02/2007 We feel fine : an interesting exploration of human emotions

-02/28/2007 Asperger's Association of New England upcoming talk on Media Lab research projects

-02/27/2007 Controversial study about TV watching and autism (for subscribers only, I emailed class full article).

-02/27/2007 You can reach John Lester at pathfinder "at" if you want tips for visiting the Asperger's community on SL

-02/27/2007 Great web "non-site" from Amanda Baggs

-02/10/2007 Study Puts Rate of Autism at 1 in 150 U.S. Children

-01/25/2007 The course wiki is now up and running (media lab login required)

-01/25/2007 Check out the MIT Autism and Developmental Disorders Colloquium Series (to join the bcs-talks mailing list, please send email to Judith Rauchwarger at


Staff | Description| Announcements | Assignments and Syllabus | References | Policies | Links

Syllabus and Assignments

The complete reading list: html page or endnote file

NOTE: The readings and assignments are due the day before class at NOON. Please post the assignments on the course wiki




Introduction to autism and technology autism


  • Introduction to autism spectrum disorder.
  • A discussion of the opportunities our research/technology (e.g. affective computing, relational machines, commonsense computing) have to offer to individuals with autism spectrum disorder, to their families and to teachers/clinicians/researchers
  • Overlapping goals and challenges
  • What can we learn from these individuals, and from strategies they have devised to cope with autism?




Social interaction deficits and technologies



Optional readings:


Optional/Recommended books:

  • Haddon, M. (2004). The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Jonathan Cape.
  • Grandin, T. and Johnson, C. (2004). Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, Scribner.
  • Moon, E. (2003). The Speed of Dark, Ballantine Books.
  • Fling, E. (2000). Eating an Artichoke: A Mother's Perspective on Asperger Syndrome, Jessica Kingsley Publisher.


Assignment (due 02/12 by noon on course wiki)

Take the following tests and comment on your scores in light of the above readings. Are you an empathizer or systemizer? Spend some time avoiding face or eye contact when interacting with others and comment on your experience. Does it affect your behavior in any way? How can we encourage/systemize social interactions? What opportunities are there for helping people with autism with social interactions? How would our affective/relational machines score?





Communication deficits, technology for facilitating people sense (with guest presenter:  John Lester , Community and Education Manager, Linden Lab



The order of the readings below is also a good order for reading them; this order also applies to the questions that follow.



Optional readings:


Assignment (due 02/26 by noon on course wiki)

Please address each of these items briefly on the wiki after reading the papers above. We will plan to discuss these issues and ideas more fully during class.


1. Ozonoff & Rogers mention some of the legitimate aptitudes that

people with autism have. Describe an area that you engage in regularly

where at least one of these aptitudes could be particularly advantageous.


2. It is very hard to evaluate if a technology intervention

helps improve the performance of somebody with autism. Name two

issues, specific to the ASD population, that a researcher has

to be particularly careful about.


2. Given what you have learned about ASD so far, describe two nice

properties of onlines systems like KidTalk for helping people w/ASD.

Also describe two potential concerns of online approaches for

treating ASD-related social needs.


3. Virtual reality technologies offer the disadvantages of being more

expensive, harder to maintain (cleaning sweat off, etc.) and less

accessible to groups who want to interact; at the same time, the

experience they provide is more immersive and real. Construct an

example where you think the additional effort of virtual reality therapy

might be most effective for helping somebody with ASD.


4. Real-time social-emotional interaction is an enormously difficult

problem for people with ASD and GSP, interpreting both verbal and

non-verbal information in real time while trying to read between the

lines and figure out how to respond. Suppose there was a full

working version of the PARLE system with facial and speech affect

recognition coupled with verbal expression interpretation. What

problems do you anticipate this system might produce? Can you

envision an interface to this system that would help a person in real



5. Luis von Ahn's strategy of crafting games utilizing human skills

to do things machines can't do could be applied in many other domains

besides image labeling. Suggest a way that this might be applied to

help people with ASD.


6. For the galvactivator, please just feel free to play with it for now.

We will learn more about it next week.




Stress in social interaction, technology for monitoring/regulating (Guest lecture: Matthew Goodwin, Groden Center, Providence, RI)



Optional readings:

  • Socio-emotional development (Dawson 1991)
  • Stress and Coping in Autism, M. Grace Baron, June Groden, Gerald Groden and Lewis P. Lipsitt, Oxford University Press (we are requesting MIT libraries to buy this great book with multiple perspectives in it)


Please address each of these items on the wiki after reading the papers above.

We will plan to discuss these issues and ideas more fully during class.


1. How can arousal modulation problems impact children's development?

What role might such problems play in autism spectrum disorders (ASD)?


2. What are the characteristics of ASD related to stress?


3. What factors need to be considered when assessing physiological reactivity

in individuals with ASD? Consider this question in terms of: (1) characteristics

of ASD; (2) characteristics of assessment devices; and (3) characteristics of

assessment setting and observation protocol.


4. If you could reliably identify that an individual with ASD had problems with

arousal modulation, how might you help him/her to cope?


5. Try two of these (or similar) classic stress experiments with the galvactivator on yourself or on a good friend who is willing. These include physical, cognitive, and social stress elicitors, all of which have been shown to produce sympathetic arousal. Report to us what you tried and what happened.


PHYSICAL - Cold Pressor Test: Immerse non-glove hand in a bowl of ice

water for 3 min.


COGNITIVE - Mental Arithmetic: Without a calculator or pen & paper, multiple

two numbers beginning at 1, then multiple the product by the next number,

i.e., 1 x 2 = 2, 2 x 3 = 6, 6 x 7 = 42, 42 x 43, etc.


SOCIAL - Public Speaking: Make a video recording of yourself talking about

something, e.g., what you are learning in this class. (Make sure the camera

shows the galvactivator.)


Note that it is advised to do some kind of RELAXATION before and after each stressor, setting the light to be very dim (just visible) after the baseline relaxation period. For example, you can experiment with progressive relaxation (eyes closed, focus attention on relaxing the eyes, nose, mouth, neck, chest, arms, legs, feet, etc.) and see if this makes the light go dim. (Some readings might also possibly have this relaxing affect.)




Developmental and intervention theories and technologies for early diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment



Optional Readings:


Please address each of these items on the wiki after reading the papers above.

We will plan to discuss these issues and ideas more fully during class.


This assignment is intended to get you thinking about ideas/concepts you'd like to pursue for a final project.


The last question has more of a design flavor, so be prepared to discuss your concept design with the class (you can bring supplementary materials, e.g., ppt slides, etc if you'd like). I would like this class to feel a bit more like a design studio where we can share ideas and give feedback on them.


1. We've read a variety of readings (for this and prior classes) on various technologies for diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment. Summarize the design issues for the following classes of technological systems: ubiquitous computing platforms, wearable computing platforms, robotic platforms, and desktop computer platforms. These issues should consider both the patient's perspective as well as the clinician's perspective (and the family's perspective, if relevant).


2. What are the particular advantages or limitations of each class of technology: ubiquitous computing, wearable computing, robotics, and desktop computer. This should inform what kind of technology you might choose for a particular kind of application.


3. The SCERTS Model presents evaluation goals for 3 classes of developmental dimensions that must be addressed in a comprehensive program to support the development of young children with ASD and their families. These classes are Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support. Propose a conceptual design for a social robot that can help a child achieve a few of the goals articulated in this paper. For instance, under Social Communication, you might choose to propose a social robot design and interaction regimen that helps a child improve their ability to achieve the goals of establishing "anticipatory behavior" and "shared affect." Be prepared to discuss your concept designs in class: what the robot looks like (its "embodiment"), its behaviors, the interactions it implements to help teach the child, the role of the experimenter, how you would assess the child's performance over time. For instance, how can you design the robot to serve as a scaffold (helping the child to build competence) rather than a crutch (the child is always dependent upon it)? Are there any ethical concerns that must be addressed?



Initial proposal draft due: Preliminary "draft" project proposals are due this class.   This can be a couple pages (or less) of 1-3 ideas that you'd be interested in pursuing for the project due the last day of class.  They can be kind of rough at this point.  Try to describe what you'd hope to achieve, what you think you could learn by doing the project, together with what resources you would need to get there. 


We encourage you to build/modify some technology or run some

experiment with existing technology that permits you more deeply explore some of the ideas/theories presented in the class.  Please feel free to talk to Cynthia, Sherry, Roz or Rana or email all of us at mas962 staff at the usual rest of our email address - with any questions. We're happy to help try to locate resources for you.  We will also make time to meet/discuss project proposal drafts before the final proposals are due.  If you're looking for somebody to consider collaborating w/you on an idea, feel free to mail the whole class list too.


The next COUHES deadline is March 22 so it is important that if you want to do a project that involves any tests with human subjects, you try to make this date.




Project Planning




We plan on using most of this class to present project proposals so that each of us can benefit from this discussion. Final project proposals are due this week (before Spring Break) to give you some time to incorporate this class feedback into your final project proposal.

Spring break  03/27






Autistic Neural Information Processing, from Attention to Social Cognition (Guest Lecture: Matthew Belmonte, Cornell University)




Optional Readings:



On the wiki please address briefly: Is autism best construed as a modular dysfunction of theory of mind?


Please also email the mas962-staff with the latest progress on your project (COUHES approval, materials you need that are gathered, anything you need help from us on.) We are happy to work with you to help assist.




Embodied cognition and imitation/mirroring, relevance to development




Optional Readings:




Please post your answers to the wiki by noon Monday.


1.      Describe, in your own words, the trajectory of how an imitation behavior could facilitate the development of more sophisticated social interaction skills.


2.      Briefly describe three of the many hypothesized ways in which problems with development of the mirror neuron system could lead to the characteristics seen in autism.


3.      Dawson describes some ways parents of a child with autism and their child have been observed to interact, which may both arise from and have implications for the child's atypical development. Give an example of one of these kinds of interaction and explain how it does NOT imply the parent is causing the child's autism.


4.      Developmental information like: "When did your son/daughter first smile" or "When did your child first learn to hold join attention" are crucial for early detection of autism and other developmental disorders. Describe a new technology that would make it easier, more fun, and more objective to help monitor a child's development.


5.      Can you suggest any technologies that might help diagnose autism at an early age?




Current Trends in Social Skills Intervention for Higher Functioning Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum (Guest Lecture: Matt Lerner, Spotlight Program)



Please address each of these items on the wiki after reading the papers above. (Remember that your writing assignments on the readings count for 30 percent credit for this class.) Thank you for posting this the day before class.


  • Identify theoretical strengths of the intervention models presented in both the Gutstein and McGinnis readings.
  • Identify practical challenges endemic to each of the intervention models presented in Gutstein, McGinnis, and Solomon readings.
  • Come up with 1-2 activities that could be used to promote social-emotional development and identify the theoretical model of programming to which they most closely adhere. 
  • What are some ways new technologies could be used to augment the effectiveness of these sorts of intervention techniques?


Please email mas962-staff an update of your project progress by the morning of the class.




Autism in Context. The 1950s/1960s (note: CHI Conference in San Jose )


1. Bruno Bettelheim, "Joey the Mechanical Boy", from The Empty Fortress (New York: The Free Press, 1967), pp. 233-339
Bettelheim Part I
Bettelheim Part II


NOTE: Bruno Bettelheim's perspective on autism, common in the 1950s and early 1960s, provides a context for understanding the recent historical view of autism; a view, now largely discredited, that has had a major impact on current discourses in the autistic community. The Sue Miller novel depicts a family who are trying to raise an autistic child by following Bettelheim's theory; read the novel to get a general sense of the ambiance of the time and the impact of these ideas on family life. You do not need to do a close reading.


2. Susan Miller, Family Pictures (New York: Harper and Row, 1990). Book will be distributed in class on 04/24.



In preparation for Estee Klar-Wolfond's visit on May 8, review the readings, videos, and blogs for May 8 and choose five that you are prepared to present to the class as exemplars of new ways of referencing autism that we may contrast with the perspectives represented in the Bettelheim and Miller materials.




Autism in Context. Current Views of Referencing and Accommodating Autism. (Guest Lecture: Estee Klar-Wolfond, Autism Acceptance Project)

Location: Stata Center Room 32-123




YouTube Videos


Optional readings:



Five of the materials listed for this date will have been reviewed for 05/01. Now review the rest as well as some of the optional materials if you have time and prepare answers to six of the nine questions listed below for the wiki, after doing your reading and video watching. We will discuss these issues and ideas more fully during the lecture.


  • In reviewing the literature written by autistic individuals, and disability rights activists, how has your view of autism as a deviance from the norm affected your view? How has it affected your project?
  • What guides should we use in developing assistive technologies for autistic individuals?
  • How might we change our "developmental" view of autism when it comes to teaching?
  • What do autistic individuals have to teach us?
  • What are the documented strengths and perceptual abilities in autism and how can that be integrated in the development of assistive technologies?
  • What terms would you replace in referencing autism now that you know something about how autistic people feel about them?
  • What are some successful strategies you've read about or seen that respects the autistic individual?
  • Is the goal to render an autistic person less autistic? Explain.
  • What does accommodation and access look like for successful inclusion of autistic individuals on our research teams, at conferences, boards of directors, etc.? Can you suggest successful environmental strategies that are relatively easy to employ?




Final project presentations and demonstrations



Staff | Description| Announcements | Assignments and Syllabus | References | Policies | Links

Policies and Grading

25% Classroom participation
30% Ten assignments (reading/response)
45% Project and presentation (proposal draft due March 13, final proposal dueby March 20, presentations due May 15)

All students are expected to attend all classes and all project presentations. Please contact one of the professors in advance if you will have to miss class. Unexcused absence will affect your grade. The final project presentations are especially important for everyone to attend; please do not plan to leave for summer until after the last day of class May 15.

Staff| Description| Announcements| Assignmentsand Syllabus | References| Policies | Links

Autism Links

Study Puts Rate of Autism at 1 in150 U.S. Children
Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge
Wisconsin Medical Society - Savant Profile Home Page


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