TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Three University of Alabama students along with two professors will publish a book chapter detailing their research in developing a smart phone application for children with autism.
The app is designed to boost the interpersonal communication skills of children with autism.
Two of the students, Cassidy Lam and Lauren Lambert, are a part of the University’s Emerging Scholars program, a program that provides research opportunities to eligible freshman students.
Lam, a junior in computer science, and Joshua Wolfe, a sophomore in computer science, are in charge of the technical aspects in developing the app while Lambert, a junior majoring in psychology, applies her emerging expertise on the development of children with autism spectrum disorders. All three graduated from Madison Academy in Huntsville.
“Children with autism spectrum disorders generally have trouble recognizing facial expressions and emotions in others,” Lambert said. “The basic assumption is that you learn emotions from the people around you but, with autism, you’re not interacting socially in the same way, so your visual patterns don’t focus on the same places, it’s kind of random and disorganized.”
The students’ research follows a growing trend of using social media technology in developmental intervention and is based on research by Dr. Angela Barber, assistant professor of communicative disorders at The University of Alabama, who specializes in autism spectrum disorders.
The smart phone app is targeted toward children around kindergarten age and is divided into three phases for an interactive learning style.
The child is first presented with an image of a facial expression.
“It may be a picture of someone expressing a happy emotion or smiling, and then it will say the word ‘happy,’” Lambert explained.
The app features an audio option and, after either reading or listening to the name of the corresponding emotion,the child is next asked to match the emotion expressed in the image with its correct name. Afterward, the child can then participate in an interactive, charades phase.
“The ideal setting to use this app would be in a support group, like in a kindergarten or pre-school classroom, so the teacher facilitates the charades phase,” Lambert said. “Ideally, each child takes a turn, and they have to show an emotion, they have to get up and the other children will guess what emotion they’re showing.”
After two years of working on the app project, Dr. Jeff Gray, associate professor of computer science at UA and adviser for the students, received information about an academic publication on the role of technology in autism intervention.
“I saw the announcement for a specific call for book chapters in the same area as this app and thought ‘this is the perfect fit,’” Gray said. “Very rarely do you get that kind of gift handed to you, so I just knew we had to go through this.”
According to Gray, it is rare for undergraduate students to publish at this level.
“I have Ph.D. students who would love to have a book chapter in their publications list,” he said. “This is atypical for undergrads to be writing book chapters.”
The book chapter, titled “Improving Socialization and Emotion Recognition for Children with Autism Using a Smartphone App,” is written in collaboration with Barber, Gray and Dr. Gary Edwards, executive director of UCP of Greater Birmingham. The chapter will be published in “Innovative Technologies to Benefit Children on the Autism Spectrum” by Nava Silton, assistant professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College, and is set for release in spring 2014.
“I think people are really excited to use technology to help their kids,” Lambert said. “Anybody that has small children wants them to have the most advantage that they can, so they’re going to be looking for this.”
The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.