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17th March 2016

Engineer dad creates game-changing tech therapies to help autistic children after son’s diagnosis

Samson Cheung and his wife knew something was off. Their baby son never responded when they said his name. Peek-a-boo with the bathtub curtain? A non-starter.

Tests ruled out a hearing problem. When Cheung’s son was two, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder – a condition encompassing difficulties in social interaction, communication, behavior and learning. The disorder has been linked to differences in brain structure.

Smart technology has helped millions with medical problems. As Cheung, a multimedia information processing expert, learned more about his son’s condition, he began thinking that technology might help with behavioral and social issues too.

He went to work with psychologists, behavioral scientists, educators, pediatricians and his own doctoral students at the University of Kentucky. Bolstered by an $800,000 government grant, Cheung’s R&D center soon began bubbling with ideas and projects.

–  A videogame to teach social greetings, dubbed MEBook, superimposes the child’s face on a cartoon character. While autistic children often show little interest in others, they love seeing their own image.

–  Customized Google Glasses display a happy face when the user makes eye contact with someone, a sad face when he looks away. A sound bar cues the user to speak louder or softer depending on background noise and the other person’s volume.

–  To let parents view videos of their child at school without violating the privacy of other students, special processing software blocks out everyone but the child.

–  Most ambitious of all, a room-sized display morphs the child into the star of his own 3D show, a “virtual mirror” where he sees himself interacting with others.

Cheung’s son was one of the subjects in a recent trial of the MEBook. “The data show that he has quite a big improvement,” Cheung says.

“I personally love Google Glasses the most,” he says. Although MEBook helps, “It gets in the way of social communication.”

An estimated of 1 in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. That’s a dramatic rise from the 1970s rate of 1 in several thousand, and the reasons remain unclear. Boys are almost five times as likely as girls to have ASD.

Cheung’s son is now 9 years old and is described by his dad as an ordinary, friendly boy. When I tell him that my son is the same age, he laughs and we agree that boys are challenging no matter what else is going on. He also has a 7-year-old daughter. “She’s neuro-typical, but she’s a handful too.”

Cheung says he learned by talking with parents and people in the field that while much research has been done on diagnosis, the needs of adults with ASD have been largely ignored. “What is the technology to help people live independently, pursue a career and have a family?” he asks.

It’s a good bet that Cheung and his team will be coming up with some highly creative answers.