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Apps for autism

UC Irvine informatics professor Gillian Hayes develops apps and other tools to help people affected by autism.

July 29, 2013
UC Irvine informatics professor Gillian Hayes creates apps and other tools to help people affected by autism.

Last December, Gillian Hayes hosted an autism technology showcase, believing that only a few dozen people would show up on a chilly Saturday morning to review the latest research.

But at a time when most folks were finishing their first cup of coffee, more than 150 jammed into a UC Irvine conference room at to see poster presentations and product demonstrations by Hayes, her colleagues and her students.

The turnout at the Beckman Center far surpassed her expectations, and the inquisitive crowd personified an exploding demand for technologies that help individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

“I’m continually surprised by the amount of interest,” says Hayes, a UC Irvine associate professor of informatics. “But it’s great. People want this, so we have to get after it and really make a difference.”

Hayes is an expert in the field of human-computer interaction — how technology can be a tool to understand people and improve their lives — with a focus on autism, which affects nearly one in 88 American children.

Her work coincides with a growing acceptance of technology that aids those with autism, as reflected by a seemingly endless array of electronic applications. An April Los Angeles Times article on the subject noted that a search of the Apple App Store yielded 1,449 products for the iPad and 1,259 for the iPhone.

Tools to communicate 

“Mobile apps have the potential to address a wide range of issues related to autism,” Hayes says, “from providing a voice for those who can’t speak to increasing independent living and employment skills.”

The autism app craze, she says, started with the iPhone but really took off with the iPad, which has a larger footprint that’s easier for kids to use. With apps now available on a wide variety of tablets and smartphones, the trend continues. There are apps to improve communication and time recognition and management. Others deliver educational lessons. More and more tackle personal concerns, such as hygiene and social interaction. For parents of children with autism, finding the right app can be daunting.

As director of technology research at the UCI Health Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders of Southern California, Hayes teaches families how to use such apps on iPads donated to the center by PIMCO, a Newport Beach-based investment firm.

Retired PIMCO CEO Bill Thompson and his wife, Nancy, and the Children & Families Commission of Orange County gave UC Irvine $14 million last year to create the diagnostic, treatment, outreach and education center that serves those with autism spectrum disorders from birth to young adulthood.

“We look to Gillian as our sounding board and expert,” says Dr. Joseph Donnelly, the UCI Health pediatric neurologist who directs the center. “These technologies show enormous potential to help kids learn and communicate, but we can’t just integrate them on face value without seeing if they’re effective or not. Gillian has been valuable with our efforts to move into this area.”

Hands-on help 

Hayes and her students hold regular workshops with center families to talk about the basics of assistive technology and iPad utilization.

“I’ll bring new apps into my office, check them out and then bring them to the parents,” she says. “We get hands-on with the technology, trying different ones out and getting feedback. Some of the families have great ideas.”

Hayes and her research collective — called the STAR Group — reach into the community to put theory into practice. STAR stands for Social & Technological Action Research, she says, “which means we should work with the community to understand and create interventions collaboratively. It’s my view of the world: There’s no point in developing a theory if it’s not applicable to improving someone’s life.”

STAR researchers and students review and test autism technologies, and if they identify a need that’s not being met, they’ll generate new ones. Their projects have included apps for hygiene and activity planning and other tools that address social skills and caregiver concerns.

To provide a commercial channel for these creations, Hayes founded Tiwahe Technology. Originally conceived to bring her doctoral dissertation work to market, the firm offers design and consulting services for autism and other assistive and educational products.

“Tiwahe [‘family’ in the Lakota language] is a great outlet for my graduate students, and it’s a platform for others to get together and develop interesting programs focused on autism,” Hayes says.

Teaching life skills

She also collaborates with Orange County school districts to create and employ technologies to enhance the social and cognitive skills of students with autism so that when they’re adults, they’ll be able to hold down jobs.

“The tools help these students learn how to get to work on time, get tasks done and handle the money they earn,” Hayes says. “Instead of them relying on taxpayers, we want them one day to be independent taxpayers themselves.”

“Gillian is very enthusiastic and easy to work with,” says Linda O’Neal, Career Link director for the Irvine Unified School District. “She’s more of a can-do person than a can’t-do person.”

Hayes says this attitude is fueled by the special ed teachers she collaborates with, who continually inspire her. “Sometimes I get tired sitting in the office and writing code, and it makes a big difference to meet the teachers,” she says. “I love their passion; it’s wonderful.”

In turn, Hayes is inspiring UC Irvine’s tech-savvy students to utilize their talents to make life better for those in need. This spring, she helped sponsor the Autism AppJam, a two-week competition in which participants from across campus teamed up to devise apps.

At first, Hayes worried about how many students would sign up, but her concerns proved unwarranted — more than 120 did. The AppJam culminated in a raucous final event last April in which 20 teams showed off their creations to friends, faculty, judges and visitors.

Amid the chatter and chaos, Hayes stood smiling. “I’ve really fallen in love with the idea that autism can be well served by technology,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the interest everyone has and the progress we continue to make. And it’s only going to get better.”

— Tom Vasich, University Communications