UCI’s Apps for Autism Therapy

While some of us are jaded about the overwhelming inundation of technology into our business and social lives, Associate Professor Informatics, Gillian Hayes, has a different take. As creator of Social & Technical Action Research (STAR), Hayes has molded technology to the benefit of children with autism.

Courtesy of Gillian Hayes

Courtesy of Gillian Hayes

Not many of us can say we’ve used technology for therapeutic relief, but her research does just that.

Hayes and her tech students teach families with children with autism how to use iPad apps that improve communication, augmentative and social skills. More specified apps help children with autism exercise healthy hygiene, time management and social interaction. Families use iPads donated to the center by PIMCO, a Newport Beach-based investment firm.

“Part of my mission is to understand how technology can be used in tandem with other strategies to support real human needs, particularly for people who are often left out of the design process,” Hayes said.

Hayes is an expert in human-computer interaction, which is exactly what it sounds like: how technology can be used to help people improve their lives.

“Technology is just one piece of that much larger picture,” Hayes said.

In the mid-90s, Hayes launched a study during her graduate program at Georgia Tech trying to understand how families manage their children’s behavioral and monitoring data. After meeting her advisor, Gregory Abowd’s two sons with autism, she specialized her research on the brain disorder that affects 1 out of 88 children in the U.S.

“It was then that I knew something had to be done. I just became so excited about the potential for technology to support families, schools and everyone else in the autism community that I kept working on it,” Hayes said.

While UC Irvine hosts skilled research in long range cancer, Alzheimer’s and environmental fields, Hayes knew she needed to work in a field where she could see immediate results. It is essential for Hayes to spend a lot of time in the field, talking with people, working with non-profits, schools and clinics and developing relationships with those in need.

Researchers at STAR believe that when working with children with autism, it has to be a team effort. Beyond app development, Hayes believes that bringing together diverse specialists to work cooperatively with families, schools and individuals with autism will be key to the center’s success going forward.

In December, the William & Nancy Thompson Family Foundation and The Children & Families Commission of Orange County (CFCOC) gave UC Irvine $14.8 million from private donors to support the new Center for Autism Research and Treatment in bringing transformative treatment for autism, and STAR is taking a big first step in the process.

Hayes and her team worked clinically with children with autism at ForOCKids before the center was founded. Now the work can benefit students with autism on a larger scale, as the ForOCKids is now the clinical core of UC Irvine’s new center.

“Unlike many other health challenges, autism doesn’t impact just one age range, one gender, one ethnic group. There are no boundaries, and autism itself is an incredibly wide diagnostic category,” Hayes said.

Among other research, STAR addresses the issue of apps not being empirically tested, meaning they are not scientifically proven to be beneficial therapies for students with autism.

While Hayes’s researchers evaluate apps from other companies, they also develop apps of their own for families to download from the app store.

As Director of Technology Research for the center, Hayes was pleased to finish STAR’s first major study using a Kinect-based game to support multi-sensory therapy.

In order to better aid people with autism in transitioning to the work environment, STAR created VidCoach to help students practice interview skills so they can become better prepared for the social interactions involved in communicating in real world situations.

“For many students with autism, it’s not actually the cognitive skills that make transitioning into the workforce so challenging, but the social or communicative skills,” Hayes said.

Among VidCoach and Kinect games, STAR has also been working on a game for use in behavior management in schools.

This spring, Hayes and her STAR research team helped sponsor the Autism AppJam, a two-week competition in which undergraduate and graduate students from across campus teamed up to design, build and demo apps for autism. While AppJam raised awareness about autism and the benefits of apps for autism, it was also a breeding ground for innovative apps.

While the biggest challenge STAR has is finding students and donors who are interested in both technology and human development, graduate students like Erick Custodio are proud to be a part of a technological age when apps can help improve children’s health.

Custodio, app writer and former Apple genius, helps the team by staffing drop-in hours for families to get support for free.

“There are so many individuals and so much that can be done, from occupational therapy to speech and language therapy to development of social skills and support for independent living, work training and secondary education,” Hayes said.

While recently working on a project with school districts in Orange and LA counties to support older students transitioning out of schools into the workplace, Hayes has seen her Ph.D. students grow in their skills as teachers in the autism community.

“I am always aware that there are only so many people that my teaching and research can reach,” Hayes said.

Hayes’s work also gives computer science students an example of the careers they can find themselves in — careers that go beyond the technology and into the minds of children in need.

“Technology isn’t the silver bullet,” Hayes said.

“In fact, sometimes it can cause more problems than it solves, but it’s an amazing, flexible tool, and we can do a lot to help.”