Friday, June 22, 2012

Social Media Helps Students with Autism "Navigate the World"

Jordan Hilkowitz is layering household products into a beaker for his latest science experiment. Right beside his mom’s coffeemaker on the kitchen counter, he is preparing a video entitled Layers and Density, describing each step for his 3,800 YouTube channel subscribers and more than 1.5-million viewers. It’s an extraordinary feat considering that five years ago, the 10-year-old autistic boy was non-verbal.

Ten year old Jordan Hilkowitz is photographed in the kitchen with a laptop showing his website on science experiments on June 8 2012. (Photo Credit: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Ten year old Jordan Hilkowitz is photographed in the kitchen with a laptop showing his website on science experiments on June 8 2012. (Photo Credit: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Jordan, better known as Doctor Mad Science, also has an audience of researchers who are intrigued by the fact that social media could be useful therapy for children with autism.

“I just want to say thank you to everyone who has written nice comments about my video’s [sic],” he posted on a previous video. “I sometimes have a hard time making friends and I now know there are some nice people out there.”

One in every 150-160 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, neurological conditions that affect communication and social interaction.

But a growing number of children and young adults are harnessing the power of social media to bring them out of their shells, bolster their confidence and tell their stories – giving scientists a new and potentially transformative avenue to explore in the already extensive field of autism research.

Autistic children have long been drawn to technology, but what is it about these new forms of social media that changes behaviour?

“That part is very much a mystery. But it’s certainly attracting the attention of researchers,” said Peter Szatmari, a leading autism researcher, who is the head of child psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at McMaster University and McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont.

One theory, Dr. Szatmari said, is that the human face doesn’t have the same drawing power for an autistic child, and that something about technology triggers the motivation that’s lacking in face-to-face contact. “This can really have a big impact in helping people with ASD navigate the world and be able to do things that we never thought possible before,” he said.

Marc Sirkin, vice-president of social marketing at Autism Speaks, an advocacy group in the United States, said Jordan and others are using social media in such astounding ways that those who work with them are forced to take a second look. Carly Fleischmann, a non-verbal autistic teen from Toronto, for example, tweets about her disorder and other topics to more than 24,000 followers, and Nichole Lee, a 21-year-old from Utah, has a YouTube channel where she posts video blogs and speaks about autism.

“We think about people with disabilities [as] being intellectually disabled. As it turns out, there’s a large part of the autism community that’s not intellectually disabled. They’re just unable to communicate,” Mr. Sirkin said.
Jordan began posting science experiments on YouTube a year ago with the help of a babysitter. His interest in science came at an early age – he collected rocks, worked on circuits and, at one point, installed pulleys all over his house. When his focus turned to experiments, his babysitter suggested he appear on camera because she thought it would force him to work on his speech and perhaps gain confidence. Jordan searches for kid-friendly science experiments online, conducts them before the camera, and helps edit the videos. He’s made about $2,200 through his YouTube business, with the goal of earning enough to buy a Macbook.

For Jordan’s mother, the greater value is emotional.

Stacey Hilkowitz remembered that she once needed the help of security guards at the mall to remove Jordan when he was having a screaming fit, and how he would smash his head against the floor. “I’m so embarrassed,” Jordan piped in, covering his face with his hands. Ms. Hilkowitz quickly turned the conversation to how Jordan has changed, crediting that transformation to his appearances on YouTube. He’s loud and confident, his speech has improved, he has friends, and even served some time in school detention this year. “I know it sounds funny, but those are the types of things we want to see,” said Ms. Hilkowitz, who has an older daughter also diagnosed with autism.

“This is a good year for you, Jordan, a very good year,” she said to her son.
Sometimes Jordan has wanted to quit. He has been hurt by comments about his voice and the fact that he doesn’t enunciate well.

These days, Ms. Hilkowitz deletes damaging comments early in the morning. Viewers try to boost his confidence as well. “Six dislikes?????? Don’t worry you can always knock back their job applications in twenty years time,” one wrote.

Jordan is buoyed by those comments. “It really gets to people,” he said. “Like with my disability, it really gets people realizing that anyone can do [anything].”

Drexel Students Develop Apps to Aid Students with Visual Impairment

 For people with vision disabilities daily activities such as reading a newspaper, texting or checking Facebook often require the extra step of sitting down at a computer or pulling out a text magnifier – a step that instantly signals their difference from those around them. A group of undergraduate computer science students at Drexel are now hoping to make these tasks as easy and common as using a smartphone.

Drexel computer science senior Nate Vecchiarelli (right) was part of a senior design group that developed and implemented smartphone apps to aid students with vision disabilities at Overbook School for the Blind.(Photo credit: Drexel University)
Drexel computer science senior Nate Vecchiarelli (right) was part of a senior design group that developed and implemented smartphone apps to aid students with vision disabilities at Overbook School for the Blind.(Photo credit: Drexel University)
VisAssist, a set of applications created by seniors Trevor Adams, Nate Bomberger, Tom Burdak,Shawn Busolits, Andrew Scott, Matt Staniewicz,Nate Vecchiarelli as part of the school’s capstone senior design program, introduces preexisting vision-assistance technology and improved social media interfaces to the mobile devices.

The computer science seniors, charged with solving an open-ended task, met with students, teachers and administrators at Overbook School for the Blind to learn about the current technology and gain insight about the shortcomings of standard smartphone interface for people with vision disabilities.

What the computer science students found was that, in addition to the rigors of daily reading, even the accessing popular social media applications via smartphones, can also be frustrating for individuals with visual disabilities.

“From meeting with the students we realized that current accessibility for websites was inadequate,” said Nate Vecchiarrelli, a member of the app design group. “Many of the complaints centered around changing interfaces that were poorly designed for current screen readers. We decided to take an entirely new approach that focused around the paradigm of one view, one purpose. This enabled our user interface to be simple, intuitive and not overload the user with too much information.”

The group started by simplifying the keyboard to make it easier for users to type and send text messages. The program they developed, dubbed “Binoboard,” is a customized keyboard that arranges the alphabet in a binary tree format. Users can simply swipe left or right to navigate through the alphabet and symbols, rather than searching a full keyboard. It also gives auditory feedback, supports voice recognition and stores passwords and phrases to increase the efficiency of the keyboard.

From there, the VisAssist team set off to produce better social media smartphone interfaces for users with vision disabilities. The students targeted Facebook, Twitter and Wikimedia, three of the most frequently used social media sites, for visual tweaking.

One application, called “Constrastinator,” functions similarly to the current “reader,” a magnifying device widely used by people with vision disabilities. The Contrastinator lets users to snap a picture or scan their mobile device over text, such as a newspaper or magazine, while the display alters the text to more contrasting colors and enlarges the type, making it easier to read.

The reader is big, clunky, red and yellow and looks like a child’s toy and they don’t want to be out in the community using these devices,” said Dael Cohen, transition services coordinator at Overbook School for the Blind. “Everyone has a phone, so snapping a picture of something to view it in the Contrastinator app doesn’t look all that out of the ordinary.”

Students at Overbrook are now becoming the first group to put the apps to use, after lending their input to their design. The Drexel team returned to the school in May to help students install and use the software, as well as learning how it can continue to be improved.

“A lot of attention has been paid to accessibility to academic-related tools for typing, reading and using a computer, so typical phone use is not often considered when it comes to helping people with visual impairments,” said Stephanie Hays, a teacher at Overbrook. “Students tend to shy away from using anything that makes them look different than others.”

m advisors. The sequence is open to seniors in any discipline, more than 500 seniors participated this year.
The work of this group of computer science students was recently recognized as Drexel’s top senior design project. The senior design program at Drexel is a three-course sequence intended to give students the experience of working in a professional setting. Groups of students work to solve an open-ended problem, while gathering information and learning via interactions with faculty, community members and representatives from industry and government who serve as tea

Judges selected VisAssist as one of eight finalists from the field of 135 entries. After the group made a final presentation of the work to a panel of representatives from local industry, VisAssist was dubbed the overall winner.

“Our approach is a great starting point in helping people with vision disabilities be able to experience technology many people take for granted,” VisAssist group member Nate Bomberger said.  “We believe our software can be used to make other applications more accessible, and while there is a lot more to do in the accessibility domain, our team has demonstrated that engineers can make a huge difference for people with disabilities.”

The VisAssist suite of applications is available for free on Android devices via the Google Play market. The team is also working on moving to other mobile platforms, and have working prototypes for the Contrastinator application on Windows Mobile and iOS, Apple’s flagship mobile platform.

Source: Drexel University