Personal and Ubiquitous Computing

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 117–127 | Cite as

Developing technology for autism: an interdisciplinary approach

  • K. Porayska-PomstaEmail author
  • C. Frauenberger
  • H. Pain
  • G. Rajendran
  • T. Smith
  • R. Menzies
  • M. E. Foster
  • A. Alcorn
  • S. Wass
  • S. Bernadini
  • K. Avramides
  • W. Keay-Bright
  • J. Chen
  • A. Waller
  • K. Guldberg
  • J. Good
  • O. Lemon
Original Paper


We present an interdisciplinary methodology for designing interactive multi-modal technology for young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). In line with many other researchers in the field, we believe that the key to developing technology in this context is to embrace perspectives from diverse disciplines to arrive at a methodology that delivers satisfactory outcomes for all stakeholders. The ECHOES project provided us with the opportunity to develop a technology-enhanced learning (TEL) environment that facilitates acquisition and exploration of social skills by typically developing (TD) children and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). ECHOES’ methodology and the learning environment rely crucially on multi-disciplinary expertise including developmental psychology, visual arts, human–computer interaction, artificial intelligence, education, and several other cognate disciplines. In this article, we reflect on the methods needed to develop a TEL environment for young users with ASDs by identifying key features, benefits, and challenges of this approach.


Autism Technology-enhanced intervention Interdisciplinary research Social interactions Social signal processing Autonomous agents 



The research reported in this manuscript is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, UK and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, UK under the Teaching and Learning Research Program—Technology-Enhanced Learning, grant number: RES-139-25-0395. We would like to thank staff, pupils and parents at the following schools: Kaimes School, Edinburgh; The Hollies School, Cardiff; Allfarthing Primary School, London; Chantry Community Primary School, Sussex; Gattons Infants School, Burgess Hill; and Fintry Language Unit, Dundee, Blackness Primary, Dundee.


  1. 1.
    Alcorn AM (2010) Exploring joint attention responses in Autism Spectrum children: interacting with a virtual agent in the ECHOES TEL environment. Unpublished M.Sc. thesis, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United KingdomGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Alcorn A, Pain H, Rajendran T, Smith T, Lemon O, Porayska-Pomsta K, Foster ME, Avramides K, Frauenberger C, Bernardini S (2011) Using virtual characters to scaffold social communication in children with autism. Submitted to the international conference on artificial intelligence in education (submitted)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Avramides K, Bernardini S, Porayska-Pomsta K, Foster ME, Lemon O (2011) Socially competent pedagogical agents for children, submitted to international conference on artificial intelligence in education (submitted)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Baron-Cohen S, Leslie AM, Frith U (1985) Does the autistic-child have a theory of mind. Cognition 21(1):37–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Behne T, Carpenter M, Tomasello M (2005) One-year-olds comprehend the communicative intentions behind gestures in a hiding game. Dev Sci 8(6):492–499CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Billard A, Robins B, Nadel J, Dautenhahn K (2007) Building Robota, a mini-humanoid robot for the rehabilitation of children with autism. Assis Technol 19(1):37–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Bjerknes G, Bratteteig T (1995) User participation and democracy: a discussion of Scandinavian research on systems development. Scand J Inf Syst 7(1):73–98Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Brown J, Murray D (2001) Strategies for enhancing play skills for children with autism spectrum disorders. Educ Training Ment Retard Dev Disabil 36:312–317Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Bundy A (1986) What kind of field is artificial intelligence? DAI Research Paper No. 305. Department of Artificial Intelligence, University of Edinburgh, EdinburghGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Charman T (2003) Why is joint attention a pivotal skill in autism? Philos Trans Biol Sci 358:315324CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Chen J, Lemon O (2009) Facial feature detection and tracking in a new multimodal technology-enhanced learning environment for social communication. In: Proceedings of the IEEE international conference on signal and image processing applications (ICSIPA)Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Cicchetti D (1984) The emergence of developmental psychopathology. Child Dev 55(1):1–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Cohen L, Manion L (1980) Research methods in education. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Conlon T, Pain H (1996) Persistent collaboration: a methodology for applied artificial intelligence and education. Int J Artif Intell Educ 7(3/4):219–252Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    De Menthon DF, Davis LS (1992) Model based object pose in 25 lines of code. In: Proceedings of 2nd European conference on computer vision, Santa Margherita Ligure, pp 335–343Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Dias J, Paiva A (2005) Feeling and reasoning: a computational model for emotional characters. Progress Artif Intell Lecture Notes Comput Sci 3808/2005:127–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Druin A (2002) The role of children in the design of new technology. Behav Inform Technol 21(1):1–25Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Duquette A, Michaud F, Mercier H (2008) Exploring the use of a mobile robot as an imitation agent with children with low-functioning autism. Autonomous Robots 24(2):147–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Faja S, Aylward E, Bernier R, Dawson G (2008) Becoming a face expert: a computerized face-training program for high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Dev Neuropsychol 33(1):1–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Frauenberger C, Good J, Keay-Bright WE (2010) Phenomenology, a framework for participatory design. In: Proceedings of the 11th participatory design conferenceGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Fullan M (1991) The new meaning of educational change. Cassell, LondonGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Golan O, Baron-Cohen S (2006) Systemizing empathy: teaching adults with asperger syndrome or highfunctioning autism to recognize complex emotions using interactive multimedia. Dev Psychopathol 18(2):591–617CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Good J, Robertson J (2006) CARSS: a framework for learner-centred design with children. Int J Artif Intell Ed 16(4):381–413Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Green J, Charman T, McConachie H, Aldred C, Slonims V, Howlin P et al (2010) Parent-mediated communication-focused treatment in children with autism (PACT): a randomized controlled trial. Lancet 375(9732):2152–2160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Grynszpan O, Martin J-C, Nadel J (2008) Multimedia interfaces for users with high functioning autism: an empirical investigation. Int J Human Comput Stud 66(8):628–639CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Insel T (2009) Translating scientific opportunity into public health impact: a strategic plan for research on mental illness. Arch Gen Psychiatry 66(2):128–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Jones C, McIver L, Gibson L, Gregor P (2003) Experiences obtained from designing with children. In: IDC '03: Proceedings of the 2003 conference on Interaction design and children, ACM, New York, pp 69–74Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Kabat-Zinn J (2003) Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clin Psychol Sci Prac 10(2):144–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    El Kaliouby R, Teeters A, Picard RW (2006) An exploratory social-emotional prosthetic for autism spectrum disorders, international workshop on wearable and implantable body sensor networks, April 3–5, 2006, MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, p 3Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Keay-Bright WE (2007) The reactive colours project: demonstrating participatory and collaborative design methods for the creation of software for autistic children. Design Princi Prac Int J 1:7–16Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Landauer T (1995) The trouble with computers: usefulness, usability, and productivity. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Lanyi CS, Tilinger A (2004) Multimedia and virtual reality in the rehabilitation of autistic children. Comput Helping People Special Needs Proc 3118:22–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Merryman J, Tartaro A, Arie M, Cassell J (2008) Designing virtual peers for assessment and intervention for children with autism. Workshop on designing for children with special needs at the conference on interaction design and children. ACM Press, EvanstonGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Mitchell P, Parsons S, Leonard A (2007) Using virtual environments for teaching social understanding to 6 adolescents with autistic spectrum disorders. J Autism Dev Disord 37(3):589–600CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Muller MJ (2003) The human-computer interaction handbook, chapter: participatory design: the third space in HCI. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, London, pp 1051–1068Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Parsons S, Guldberg KK, MacLeod A, Jones GE, Prunty A, Balfe T (2009) International review of the literature of evidence of best practice provision in the education of persons with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. National Council for Special Education, IrelandGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Picard RW (2009) Future affective technology for autism and emotion communication. Philosophi Trans R Soci B Biol Sci 364(1535):3575–3584CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Poh MZ, McDuff DJ, Picard RW (2010) Non-contact, automated cardiac pulse measurements using video imaging and blind source separation. Optics Express 18(10):10762–10774CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Prizant BMW, Amy M, Rubin, Emily, Laurent AC, Rydell PJ (2005) The SCERTS Model: a comprehensive educational approach for children with autism spectrum disorders, Brookes Publishing CompanyGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Rajendran G, Mitchell P (2000) Computer mediated interaction in Asperger’s syndrome: the bubble dialogue program. Comput Educ 35(3):189–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Rao PA, Beidel DC, Murray MJ (2008) Social skills interventions for children with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism: a review and recommendations. J Autism Dev Disord 38(2):353–361CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Safyan L, Lagattuta KH (2008) Grownups are not afraid of scary stuff, but kids are: young children’s and adults’ reasoning about children’s, infants’, and adults’ fears. Child Dev 79(4):821–835CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    Schön DA (1983) The Reflective Practioner: how professionals think in action. Temple Smith, LondonGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Stenhouse L (1975) An introduction to curriculum research and development. Heinmann, LondonGoogle Scholar
  45. 45.
    Swettenham J (1996) Can children with autism be taught to understand false belief using computers? J Child Psychol Psychiatry 37(2):157–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Tartaro A, Cassell J (2006) Authorable virtual peers for autism spectrum disorders. Paper presented at the combined workshop on language-enabled educational technology and development and evaluation of robust spoken dialogue systems at the 17th European conference on artificial intelligence (ECAI06), Riva del Garda, ItalyGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Tentori M, Hayes G (2010) Designing for interaction immediacy to enhance social skills of children with autism. In: Proceedings of the 12th ACM international conference on ubiquitous computing 2010, CopenhagenGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Tomasello M (1995) Joint attention as social cognition. In: Moore C, Dunham PJ (eds) Joint attention: its origin and role in development. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 103–130Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Vasilakakis V (2009) The use of eye-tracking technology in order to investigate emotion recognition in individuals with autism, Unpublished M.Sc. Thesis, University of Edinburgh, School of InformaticsGoogle Scholar
  50. 50.
    Whalen C, Schreibman L (2003) Joint attention training for children with autism using behavior modification procedures. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 44(3):456–468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. 51.
    Weatherhead L (2010) Investigating children’s perception of causality and animacy: to what extent is this affected by object preference? Unpublished UG Thesis, University of Edinburgh, School of InformaticsGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • K. Porayska-Pomsta
    • 1
    Email author
  • C. Frauenberger
    • 2
  • H. Pain
    • 4
  • G. Rajendran
    • 3
  • T. Smith
    • 10
  • R. Menzies
    • 5
  • M. E. Foster
    • 6
  • A. Alcorn
    • 4
  • S. Wass
    • 7
  • S. Bernadini
    • 1
  • K. Avramides
    • 1
  • W. Keay-Bright
    • 8
  • J. Chen
    • 4
  • A. Waller
    • 5
  • K. Guldberg
    • 9
  • J. Good
    • 2
  • O. Lemon
    • 6
  1. 1.Institute of EducationUniversity of LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.University of SussexEast SussexUK
  3. 3.University of StrathclydeGlasgowScotland, UK
  4. 4.Edinburgh UniversityEdinburghScotland, UK
  5. 5.University of DundeeDundeeScotland, UK
  6. 6.Heriott Watt UniversityEdinburghScotland, UK
  7. 7.Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, School of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck CollegeUniversity of LondonLondonUK
  8. 8.University of Wales InstituteCardiffWales, UK
  9. 9.University of BirminghamBirminghamUK
  10. 10.Birkbeck CollegeUniversity of LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations