MAS 771: Autism Theory & Technology

SPRING 2011 Class Information:

Classes: Thursdays 10:30-12:30pm

Location: E14-493

Units: (2 0 10); This course is taught every two years in the spring.

Staff | Description | Announcements | Assignments | Syllabus | Policies | Autism Links

Staff: Instructors

Prof. Rosalind W. Picard
Office: E14-374G
Phone: 617-253-0611
picard ( @ media dot mit dot edu)
please feel free to schedule an appointment with Lil, email below

Dr. Matthew S. Goodwin
Office: E14-374K
mgoodwin ( @ media dot mit dot edu)

Staff: Admin

Ms. Lillian Lai
Office: E14-374H
Phone: 617-253-0369
lillian ( @ media dot mit dot edu)

Staff | Description | Announcements | Assignments | Syllabus | Policies | Autism Links


This course will lay a foundation in autism theory and autism technology that significantly leverages and expands MIT's ability to pioneer new technology for helping under-served populations. Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD's) encompass a broad set of conditions applying to a growing number of people worldwide, which the CDC identified in 2009 as involving the diagnosis of 1 in 100 children by age 8 in the USA. A person receives a diagnosis of ASD when they have a combination of atypical responses in categories relating to social interaction, communication, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors.

Many people on the autism spectrum face significant challenges with daily living, relationship building and maintenance, emotion awareness and regulation, and both verbal and nonverbal communication. Many also have problems with motor coordination and fine motor control to produce speech or certain sequences of movements, and some have a mysterious condition where their ability to move completely disappears and returns. Many also have problems with sensory regulation, sleep, attention, and executive function abilities. Students who take this class will learn about all of these challenges, many of which also affect people who do not have an autism diagnosis. Students will receive a state-of-the-art overview of technologies being developed to address such challenges.

This class will involve presentations from experts in autism and in autism technologies, and provide opportunities to interact with individuals on the autism spectrum, including those who support them. The course will also explore the converging challenges and goals of autism research and new technologies - including networked, wearable, and robotic - that have increasingly human-like social, emotional, and communication skills. We will advance ways technology can be used for helping both researchers and people on the autism spectrum to gain greater understanding of the condition through systematic measurement of affective, physiological, and behavior data. We will also work together to develop technologies that increase opportunities for communication and expression. Our goals are to enable people with disabilities to gain the tools and help they need, while also helping researchers, families, and their support network to develop a better understanding of what autism is.

All students will be expected to carry out a project in a team or solo.


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Final Projects are online.

Thurs 02/03 We recommend you sign up for mails for the MIT Autism and Developmental Disorders Colloquium Series.

Thurs 02/03 MIT COUHES must PRE-approve all experiments that we do at MIT that involve people - so if you wish to do a class project involving human participants, pls talk to somebody on the staff soon. COUHES deadlines this semester are Feb 24 and Mar 31, AND your department or lab may need several days before that to sign off before you can submit to COUHES.


Staff | Description | Announcements | Assignments | Syllabus | Policies | Autism Links


NOTE: With the exception of the first day of class, readings and assignments are due 24 hours before class meets, 10:30am, Wednesday. Please email them to mas771-staff at and include "771" in the subject line.

Due before 10:30am Wed Feb 9
MRC review of autism research (MRC 2001)
Designing Capture Applications to Support the Education of Children with Autism (Hayes et al 2008)
Carelog: a selective archiving tool for behavior management in schools (Hayes et al 2008)
Baby Steps: Supporting Better Record-Keeping and Decision-Making for Parents of Young Children (Kientz, Ariaga & Abowd 2009)
Exploring Speech Therapy Games with Children on the Autism Spectrum (Hoque, Lane, el Kaliouby, Goodwin, Picard, 2009)
Broadening Accessibility Through Special Interests: A New Approach to Software Customization (Morris, Kirschbaum, Picard, 2010)
1. Tell us about yourself briefly: (a) Your academic background and current research interests; (b) If/how you've been exposed to autism; (c) Why are you taking this course - what do you hope to learn or achieve through it?
2. Pick a topic from the MRC overview that particularly interests you and tell us briefly why.
3. Participant observation is the method that was used to understand the issues of discrete trial training in the development of Abaris. What are the opportunities and challenges of being a participant observer in an area like autism? What challenges do you think you'd encounter if you were working directly as the ABA therapist? Speculate on the challenges you might experience during ABA if you were the recipient of the ABA therapy.
4. Describe briefly how the CareLog and Abaris systems tried to take into consideration design of a solution that respected current work practices and social concerns, especially given that they heavily rely on recorded video that is shared with others.
5. How would you improve Baby Steps to increase the likelihood of adoption and maximum value of information? A lot of screening and diagnosis of developmental delay is based on parent reporting.

Due before 10:30am Wed Feb 16


Biological Setting Events for Self-Injury (Carr & Smith, 1995)
Menstrual Discomfort as a Biological Setting Event for Severe Problem Behavior: Assessment and Intervention (Carr et al., 2003)
Physical Illness, Pain, and Problem Behavior in Minimally Verbal People with Developmental Disabilities (Carr & Owen-DeSchryver, 2007)
Integrating Behavioral and Biomedical Approaches: A Marriage Made in Heaven (Carr & Herbert, 2008)

1. Problem behavior can be conceptualized in terms of a four-term contingency. What are the key ideas that underlie this conceptualization?

2. Many taxonomic categories of biological setting events for problem behavior could be reconceptualized as variants of physiological arousal. Thus, any of the following factors could plausibly alter arousal: medical pain, fatigue, hypersensitivity (e.g., to auditory or tactile stimuli), hyperactivity, anxiety. How might you develop a technology that would allow you to measure and discriminate, in real-time, among the various sources putatively responsible for altering arousal level?

3. Suppose the technology you developed for measuring arousal level was successful; that is, for a given individual, you were now able to identify arousal "profiles" that appeared to be related, in an orderly and reliable fashion, to a variety of social interaction, educational (i.e., instructional), and biological variables. How might you use these profiles to advise parents, teachers, and doctors about being more effective in living with (parents), educating (teachers), and diagnosing (doctors) people with autism?

Due before 10:30am Wed Feb 23


Autistic disturbances of affective contact (Kanner, 1943)

Autism: A brain disorder, or a disorder that affects the brain? (Herbert, 2005)

Time to get a grip: Does an environmental role in autism make sense? How do we decide? (Herbert, 2006)

Treatment guided research: Helping people with humility, respect and boldness (Herbert, 2008)


1. Increasingly, "Kanner autism" is used synonymously with "low-functioning autism" where people have limited or no spoken language and severe social and behavioral challenges. However, others have argued that this label is unfair given the cases Kanner describes in this original paper. Highlight a few items from Kanner's case-study descriptions that support the latter argument.

2. Herbert's (2005) review paper argues that we need to move away from a "strongly genetic, brain-based model" of autism in favor of a "genetically influenced, systemic model." Describe some of the implications this shift would have on autism research and intervention efforts.
3. Herbert (2006) likens autism to a "canary in a coal mine." Describe some of the ways that autism can teach us about our modern-day environment.
4. Briefly describe the "five levels of understanding" of autism that Herbert (2008) suggests can help integrate basic and practical research.


Dr. Stephen Shore's guest lecture will be in the Singleton Auditorium located on the 3rd floor (through the left-most doors in the large lobby) of the Brain Cognitive Science Building (46) at 43 Vassar St. You can find a map to the building by pasting the following link into a web browser:

Due before 10:30am Wed Mar 2


Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception (Mottron et al, 2006)

The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence (Dawson et al, 2007)

Learning in Autism (Dawson et al, 2008)

Many autistic individuals write extremely articulate and insightful blogs, and some of these individuals are non-speaking and have difficulty making it through a day without significant help and support. Here are some links to sites prepared by autistic individuals that the course staff has interacted with - and some others they have recommended to us:, ,, , ,,

Readings by Stephen Shore and by Tony Attwood will be emailed.


1. Mottron et al (2006) argue that social brain-based models are too narrow to account for "islets of ability" often demonstrated by both savant and non-savant autistics. Name two ways an enhanced perceptual functioning model can better account for these abilities.
2. Dawson has criticized the science and ethics of legal and political campaigns to mandate ABA-based autism interventions as "medically necessary" treatment. However, ABA is strongly advocated as "the only method scientifically proven to help autistic children learn." Given your reading of Dawson et al (2008), provide at least two arguments you find compelling to support autistic learning outside of ABA.
3. Some autism researchers describe autistic people as not having a self, and as not being able to reason about the minds of others ("theory of mind"), e.g., "if I were to say that, it would make him unhappy" or "I could see she was upset, even though she didn't say so". Find and quote at least three examples of autistic bloggers showing that they have the ability to reason about the minds of others.
4. Find and quote: (a) An example of a problem an autistic blogger describes, which sounds just like a problem any non-autistic person would have. (b) An example of a problem an autistic blogger describes, which you think is particular to autism.
5. Name three ways the characteristics of autism could be used as a strength for employment, hobbies, and leading a fulfilling and productive life.

Due before 10:30am Wed Mar 16

Stopping the constant stress (Grandin 2006)
Scientific foundation for research and practice (Lipsitt, Baron, Goodwin 2006)
Is autism a stress disorder (Morgan 2006)
Psychobiological perspective on socio-emotional development (Dawson 1991)
Cardiovascular arousal in autism (Goodwin et al. 2006)
Future affective technology for autism and emotion communication (Picard 2009)
1. Name at least one way that arousal modulation problems can impact a child's development?
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?

Due before 10:30am Wed Mar 30

Sensory Processing in Children With and Without Autism: A Comparative Study Using the Short Sensory Profile (Tomchek & Dunn, 2007)
Multisensory Processing in Children With Autism: High-Density Electrical Mapping of Auditory-Somatosensory Integration (Russo et al., 2010)
Physiological and Behavioral Differences in Sensory Processing: A Comparison of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Modulation Disorder (Schoen et al., 2009)
What Can We Learn About Autism From Autistic Persons? (Chamak et al., 2008)
Behavioral Indexes of the Efficacy of Sensory Integration Therapy (Roberts et al., 2007)
Incidence of Pre-, Peri-, and Post-Natal Birth and Developmental Problems of Children with Sensory Processing Disorder and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (May-Benson et al., 2009)
1. Considering the article by Russo et al (2010), what are the possible ramifications for a child with autism having difficulty with multi-sensory integration?
2. From the Tomcheck and Dunn article, what are the primary sensory processing problems they found to occur in individuals with autism? How did these seem to be similar to or different from the self report data in the Chamak article?
3. From the article by King-Thomas and colleagues on a single case study intervention for a child with autism, what types of behavioral changes occurred?
4. In May-Benson, Koomar and Teasdales study of pre-, peri, and postnatal factors in those with SPD and SPD and autism, what were the similarities and differences between groups?
5. Jot a paragraph about a technology you haven't seen yet that might be helpful for kids with ASD and/or SPD.

Due before 10:30am Wed Apr 20
1. From the Patel and Goodwin readings, come up with two questions: (1) A detail about the papers you'd like clarification on; and (2) A bigger question you have about the findings/work in this area.
2. Repetitive or stereotypical behaviors are generally defined as being invariant in form and without any obvious eliciting stimulus or adaptive function. However, several of the readings this week suggest that an individual might engage in these behaviors purposely. Describe (1) at least three reasons why an individual might engage in repetitive behaviors; (2) what putative mechanisms are involved; and (3) what evidence there is to support these functions and mechanisms.
3. Describe a technology you think could be developed to enhance one of the six main topic areas Mirenda (2001) describes in her review, i.e., Assessment, Staff/Family Training, Supports for Augmented Input, Supports for Augmented Input + Output, Supports for Augmented Output, and Assistive Technology for Communication and Learning.
4. Write a 1-2 paragraph reflection on your visit to the Groden Center, including how it changed or reinforced your project idea.


Due before 10:30am Wed Apr 27
1. From the Bryson et al. (2007) and Zwaigenbaum et al. (2005) readings, come up with two questions: (1) A detail about the papers you'd like clarification on; and (2) A bigger question you have about the findings/work in this area.
2. Provide a brief update on your project progress.


Staff | Description | Announcements | Assignments| Syllabus | Policies | Autism Links

Spring 2011 Syllabus:

(subject to adjustment)

Thurs 02/03: Introduction to autism and autism technology - Overview of autism spectrum disorders. Discussion of opportunities we see with our research/technology, e.g., affective computing, social robotics, relational machines, commonsense computing, to offer communication and learning opportunities to individuals with autism spectrum disorder, to their families and to teachers/clinicians/researchers. What can we learn from individuals, many of whom prefer to be called "autistic" and from strategies they have devised to adapt to the challenges they face with autism?

Thurs 02/10: Guest Lecture (Videoconference): Gregory Abowd & MAS.771 Alum Demos by Rob Morris and Ehsan Hoque (Autism Technologies)

Thurs 02/17: Video Lecture: Ted Carr (Understanding & Treating Problem Behavior in ASD)

Thurs 02/24: Guest Lecture: Martha Herbert (Biomedical & Environmental Factors)

Thurs 03/03: Guest Lecture: Stephen Shore (Personal Perspective & Autistic Intelligence)

Thurs 03/10: Project Idea Discussions

Thurs 03/17: Guest Lecture: Nomi Kaim (Personal Perspective) & Matthew Goodwin (Stress, Arousal, Anxiety & Physiological Recording)

Thurs 03/24:No classes - MIT Spring Vacation

Thurs 03/31: Guest Lecture: Jane Koomar & Elliot Hedman (Sensory Issues)

Thurs 04/07: Project Progress Presentations

Thurs 04/14: No classes - Media Lab Sponsor Week

Thurs 04/21: Guest lecturer/discussant: Amanda Baggs (Alternative & Augmentative Communication Technologies) & Matthew Goodwin (Repetitive Behavior)

Thurs 04/28: Guest Lecture: Charles Nelson (Early Diagnosis)

Thurs 05/05: Last day of class - Final Project Presentations

Thurs 05/12: TBD: Project feedback/wrap-up/reflect and discuss, ASD controversies


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25% Classroom participation

30% Ten assignments (reading/response)

45% Project and presentation (proposal draft due March 3, final proposal due by March 10, project progress presentations to class April 7, final presentations to class May 5, final write-up/webpage due May 12)

Homeworks handed in late will be deducted points as follows: 1 point the first time you are late; 2 points the second time; N points the Nth time.

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 class participation 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.

Staff | Description | Announcements | Assignments | Syllabus | Policies | Autism Links

Autism Links:

Study Puts Rate of Autism at 1 in 110 U.S. Children


Autism Self-Advocacy Network Library

The Joy of Autism/Autism Acceptance Project Online Resource and Community for Autism and Asperger's

NIMH Autism Spectrum Disorder Resource

NICHD Health Publications about Autism and Related Disorders

American Academy of Pediatrics Autism Health Topic

National Research Council Educating Children with Autism

Autism Speaks

Autism Society of America

International Society for Autism Research

National Autistic Society

Top Ten Autism Videos

Help for substance abuse in ASD and developmental disorders