Autism Theory and Technology

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Course Details

  • 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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