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Speech Development and E-Learning for Autistic Children

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is characterized by widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication, as well as severely restricted interests and highly repetitive behaviors. The prevalence of ASD is about 6 per 1,000, with about four times as many males as females. The three forms of ASD are:
1. Autism
2. Asperger syndrome
3. Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), sometimes called atypical autism.

Autistic people very often show very poor performances in social communication. Specially, the autistic children suffer from various problems in communicating to the other people of the society. Since their thinking pattern is different from the most of the people of the society, they get it hard to express their feelings to others. On the other hand, the other people of the society also find it hard to make them understand something. Among various problems the autistic children suffer, speech impairment is a very important one. Speech, being the most frequently used media for social communication, plays a vital role in expressing one's thoughts to others. Autistic children very often do not participate in normal conversations and miss a number of clues while talking.

In many cases, the children diagnose with autism are found to have difficulties with their speech. They suffer from low voice, unintelligibility, lack of fluency, lack of the sense of turn-taking etc. Sometimes, these problems arise as they do not get enough motivation to produce correct words. In our projects, we focus on this. We entice the children to utter correctly by using some voice controlled computer games. We are lucky that we get the opportunity to work with the children of Autism Welfare Foundation (AWF).

The problem in communicating to the autistic children poses a big challenge while teaching them. With the burgeoning growth of E-Learning technologies,
different kinds of methods have been devised to support the class-room teaching. But for their special needs, the autistic children often get it difficult to be taught in the same classroom with neuro-typical students.

These problems encouraged me to work on affective computing for autistic children. At first I worked on a pilot project run a PhD student of Affective Computing Group of MIT Media Lab, where we experimented the effect of computer games over autistic children. We used the open source game making platform Scratch.

Later, I continued to work on this with a number of undergraduate students. Here you will find a list of our projects:

A Computer Game-based Approach for Increasing Fluency in the Speech of Autistic Children:
(submitted to a conference) [draft]

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. This is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of human brain. Children diagnosed with autism often are self-absorbed and seem to exist in a private world where they are unable to successfully communicate and interact with others. Sometimes they have difficulties in developing language skills and understanding what others say to them. They also might have difficulties in communicating non-verbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. What actually causes verbal and nonverbal communication difficulties in autism is not yet known, but it is thought that an individual’s brain development was affected either before, during or after birth and thus the communication control centre was somehow impaired. Depending on the individual, the type of communication difficulties experienced will vary. Some individuals with autism can speak fairly fluently while others may not be able to speak at all. In this project we have developed a system that helps an autistic child for  increasing his or her fluency in speaking. Besides, we also present results of our experiments using the proposed Gaming Software with the autistic children of Autism Welfare Foundation (AWF) at Dhaka, over the past 3 months.


Increasing Intelligibility in the Speech of Autistic Children: 
(The ACM Symposium on Applied Computing (ACM SAC), 2011,Taiwan [to appear]) [Poster]
(IEEE Symposium on Multimedia (ISM) 2010, Workshop on Multimedia in E-Learning, Taiwan) [PDF]

Autism is a disorder of neural development which affects about one in every 150 kids on average. One of the major complexities regarding autistic children in social communication is the speech disorder.  The problems related to speech disorder fall into different categories and unintelligibility in speech is one of them. Although  there  is  no  definite medicine  or  treatment  for  autism, doctors, therapists, and special teachers can help kids with autism overcome  many  difficulties  by  different  physical  and psychological  therapies.  In  this project we have demonstrated our newly developed interactive computer game which will be helpful in increasing intelligibility in the speeches of autistic children and can  be  used  as  a  therapy  besides  the  traditional  approaches. During our five months of intervention with the autistic

children of Autism Welfare Foundation (AWF) at Dhaka, we checked the effectiveness of this therapy and got some encouraging results.


Detecting Turns in Conversational Dialogs:
(Manuscript under preparation)

In our conversational dialogs, we exchange turns. We get the silent clues of when we start talking and when we have to stop. This clues are very important to understand for conversation. However, there is no definite rule for guessing the turns. In many cases, we detect the turns based on pause, duration of speech, eye contact and facial expressions. While talking over telephone or such other media, we need to pick these clues solely from the speech. This require some cognitive computation which is inherent in most of the human being. But for their special pattern of thoughts, autistic children very often demonstrate poor performances in picking up turns. So, in this project we analyze the speech and try to mine the turns from conversational dialogs. Our aim is to devise an intelligent system which will signal one for taking turns based on the speech of his partner(s). This system is expected to help the autistic children to improve their turn-taking abilities. We experiment on duration of pause, frequency of the speech, zero-crossing etc. to determine turns. We are now trying to find out the optimal ensembling of this decisions to get the best output.


Development of the Sense of Turn-Taking in Autistic Children by Interactive Computer Games:
(Manuscript under preparation)

Abnormalities in social communication are considered as the principle characteristics of autism spectral disorder. Due to the abnormal cerebral structure, people with autism generally demonstrate poor performances while communicating to other people in the society. Speech is considered as one of the prime means of communication and people suffering from autism are very often found to have problems with their speeches. For example, the sense of taking proper turns during conversational dialogues is very often missing in them. This problem is even more frequent in their childhood when the skills of communication grow in them. In our ongoing intervention, we have prepared a number of interactive computer games for improving the skills of turn taking in autistic children and with different experimental setups; we analyzed their performances over a number of participants.

A-Class: A Classroom Software with the Support for Diversity in Aptitudes of Autistic Children:
(Third National Seminar on Computer and Information Technology (NSCIS) 2010, Khulna, Bangladesh.) [draft PDF]

The  burgeoning  growth  of  the  e-Learning  technologies  implies  the  fact  that  the  future  education system will  largely  depend upon  the  electronic devices  and computer aided  technologies.  It  has  already  been proved that the computer aided teaching techniques are much more effective for the children than the traditional teaching system in most of the cases. A large number of software has been designed to assist the teachers in the classroom to teach and evaluate the students. Although those software systems are good enough for a class with normal (neurotypical) children, those very often fail to address the special needs of the autistic children. Hence, the autistic children face various challenges in participating with neurotypicals in the same classroom. We have addressed  this  problem  by  designing  and  implementing  an  intelligent  classroom  software,  named “A-Class”, which  takes care of  the diversity of  tastes among  the autistic children of a classroom and helps  the  teacher  to teach in a class participated by both autistic and neurotypical children. In this project, design and implement  A-Class, based upon our five months of intervention with the autistic children at Autism Welfare Foundation (AWF) in Dhaka.