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Partner Spotlight

Father Helps Families by Merging the Worlds of Technology and Autism
Dr. Gregory Abowd
Georgia

Gregory Abowd (center) with his sons Aidan (left) and Blaise (right).As a father of three children, Dr. Gregory Abowd knows the importance of monitoring developmental milestones. Two of Gregory’s children have autism, which inspired him to start the Autism Research Group at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Gregory and his team are on the leading edge of using technology to address the many challenges of autism.

Gregory and his team at Georgia Tech developed a new way to use video recording to track the problem behaviors that a child with an autism spectrum disorder might be experiencing. When Gregory and his team began, video recording children with autism wasn’t new; however, their method of isolating behaviors at the touch of a button was innovative. “Videotaping allowed us to replay events and evaluate behaviors,” says Gregory. “Studying actual data instead of relying on memory gave us more accurate information.” Better information can help caregivers to decide how to teach a child a skill in a more effective way.

Gregory and his team also have applied their skills to develop more advanced methods for monitoring developmental milestones. Their efforts to track childhood milestones beyond physical growth reflect the goals of the “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” campaign. The “Child’s Play” project uses wireless sensors in toys to gather data about how children play. Another project uses home movies to track a child’s social growth through games like “peek-a-boo”. And, through collaboration with Opal Ousley of the Emory Autism Center, Gregory hopes to make health professional screening for children at risk for an autism spectrum disorder quick and easy with the 5-minute “RapidABC” tool intended for use by pediatricians and family physicians during routine visits.

Gregory sought advice from the “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” campaign when he was developing an online tracking tool called “Baby Steps”. The “Baby Steps” tool helps parents monitor their child's development and save video evidence to share with their child’s doctor. The team hopes to automate these videos to provide warnings to parents when a child has not reached milestones by a certain age.

He hopes the technology tools in development will affect everyday lives “in real world settings”. “For example, a former student of mine is adapting ‘Baby Steps’ for use in mobile phones,” says Gregory. A video tool to track children with behavioral challenges was licensed by a start-up company, Caring Technologies, Inc., and turned into a commercial product called “BI Capture”.

Gregory believes in the campaign’s message of “Act Early” and knows the importance of early intervention. He knows firsthand that hearing a diagnosis of autism is difficult, but it is an important first step. “Having a child with special needs can present many challenges to a family, but it is not all bad news,” says Gregory. “It is much easier today to find support, understanding, and information than for earlier generations.”

Although Gregory’s research benefits many, people with autism will continue to inspire his work. “My real hope for the future is that we are able to find ways to more directly support individuals and families living with autism every day.”

For more information about the Autism Research Group at Georgia Tech, visit http://home.cc.gatech.edu/autism.

For more information on how you can reach out to health professionals in your area, visit the How to Get Involved page of the “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” website.

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