1Brain Power, Cambridge, MA, United States
2Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, United States
3Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States
4Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, United States
To play Face2Face, the user wears the smartglasses system while the Face2Face module is running, and interacts with another person who will be positioned in front of the user. This interactive facilitation recognizes that “real-world” situations allow for the challenges of social communication to be most apparent (von dem Hagen and Bright, 2017), and reduce barriers to generalizability of learned skills (Shindorf, 2016). The Face2Face module requires two people to be present: the user and the facilitator (another person who will help facilitate the Empowered Brain-augmented interaction).
The Empowered Brain can detect the presence of a human face, determine where a user is looking relative to that face, and help guide user’s gaze toward the face in real-time. Guidance to the user is provided through visual directional prompts and auditory tones that vary depending on the positioning of the user’s gaze and the positioning of the detected face. The Empowered Brain modules use developmentally and contextually appropriate game-like elements to make the experience engaging and fun for both child, adolescent, and adult users. For example, a cartoon-like character is optically superimposed over the face that they are being guided toward.
This cartoon-like character gradually fades as the user moves his gaze toward the target face, eventually disappearing completely. At this point the user obtains points for successful task completion. The module has a series of levels and difficulty settings. Specific game data elements are recorded and transmitted to a secure central artificial intelligence (AI) powered processing center where they are available for viewing through a web-based dashboard. User performance is measured through graphs of rewards, events, and attention data. The socio-emotional coaching apps of the Empowered Brain have been previously found to be well-tolerated (Keshav et al., 2017), feasible to use (Liu et al., 2017), free from adverse effects in people with ASD (Sahin et al., 2018), and associated with improvements in the symptoms of ASD (Liu et al., 2017) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Vahabzadeh et al., 2018). These studies were, however, conducted in controlled research settings, utilizing the caregivers of participants with ASD, and were based on a single intervention session.
The Empowered Brain features key innovations in physical design, AI, and data analytics, and is supported by software, engineering, and data partnerships with a number of technology companies including X (formerly Google X, Mountain View, CA), Affectiva (a leading Emotion AI company, Boston, MA), and Amazon (use of an experimental AI technology).
Educator-Facilitated and Classroom-Based
The real-world school setting has proven itself to be a more difficult environment to provide a social communication intervention than a controlled research setting (Lawton and Kasari, 2012). Teachers and their paraprofessional colleagues may be ideal personnel to help deliver school-based communication interventions in students with ASD (Lawton and Kasari, 2012). Their intimate knowledge of a student’s strengths, weaknesses, and style of learning, combined with their established position in delivering guidance, places them in a unique position. Students’ perception of teacher support and teacher-led promotion of interaction and respect have been linked to increased student motivation and engagement (Ryan and Patrick, 2001).
This report outlines the efficacy, usability, and safety of the Empowered Brain Face2Face module intervention twice during every school day over a 2-week time period. In this report, the facilitators were several of the school professionals who were familiar with the research participant (education paraprofessional, special education teacher, general education teacher). Additionally, the intervention was used during the school day, and within an inclusive classroom setting. Outcomes were measured with the Social Responsiveness Scale 2 (SRS-2) School-age Form. The SRS-2 is a validated social communication measure used in ASD populations (Constantino and Gruber, 2012), and consists of 65 items, resulting in a total score, and five subscale scores (social awareness, social cognition, social communication, social motivation, and restricted interested and repetitive behaviors). The SRS-2 can be completed by teachers (Dickson et al., 2017) and parents (Ashman et al., 2017), with recent research noting that parental ratings may be higher than that of teachers (Nelson et al., 2016).
This case study attempted to use some elements of a single-subject design, although did not include repeated measures during individual phases of the study, an important element of single-subject studies. The focus on incorporating some elements of single-subject design was deemed to be important as single-subject research can be used as a means to testing and understanding the use of novel technology in educational settings, and has been identified as an important contributor to evidence-based practice in special education (Horner et al., 2005). Single-subject research has already helped to identify computer-assisted guidance for students with ASD as an evidence-based practice (Barton et al., 2017). The lack of repeated measures during individual phases is however a key limitation.
A 3-week structured case study of the Empowered Brain Face2Face module was conducted in a 13-year-old male student with ASD (“the participant”), in a middle school in Massachusetts.
A Case Study Incorporating Elements of a Single-Case Design
This case study utilized some components of single-case experimental design. Single-case experimental approaches have been shown to be methodologically sound (Horner et al., 2005; Kratochwill and Levin, 2010; Smith, 2012), capable of demonstrating effectiveness of interventions, and is especially suitable for the assessment of outcomes of psychological/behavioral interventions (Robey et al., 1999; Borckardt et al., 2008; Smith, 2012).
Our case study incorporated the four of key features of a high-quality single-case design as far as it was possible to do so (McMillan, 2004). One of these features is using ratings or measures that are reliable and consistent. Our study uses a validated and reliable 65-item scale that is viewed as a gold standard measure for measuring social communication in people with ASD. Three other important features that have been identified, and are included in our methodology, are: (1) having a detailed description of the measurement and treatment conditions (the school classroom); (2) having at least one baseline and treatment phase; and (3) changing only one variable between phases (use of the Empowered Brain smartglasses).
The fifth and final feature of single-case design is the ability to repeat the measurement as often as necessary. In our study, the key behavioral measure was repeated three times, at the end of the baseline week, and at the end of each of the two intervention weeks. While having repeated measures within each study week would offer more data, and would more robustly fulfill this fifth feature on paper, there were a number of factors that made this impractical. Firstly, the educators in our sample had limited time to provide more regular rating assessments as they were not only the facilitators of the intervention, but also continued in their full-time teaching role throughout the study. Secondly, the use of the SRS-2 as a daily measure of social communication has not been studied, and the authors believe that other simpler behavioral measures may be more appropriate if more regular measurements were needed. Thirdly, a reasonable amount of data was collected during our study. The SRS-2 is a robust assessment of social communication, with 65 different scored items, and was performed by four different individuals on three different occasions, providing a total of 780 rated items regarding the participant. However, the lack of daily/near daily data are noted by the authors as a limitation in this study, and makes the study design most consistent with a case study.
The study commenced with a baseline week (Week 1), during which the participant received no intervention, and had his regular school and home schedule. At the end of the week, school educators and his mother completed the SRS-2 based on the interactions and behaviors they witnessed during the baseline week. The SRS-2 was completed by three school educators: the participant’s special education teacher, general education teacher, and assigned paraprofessional. The use of cross-informant (educator and parental) ratings is the gold standard in child behavioral assessments (Dickson et al., 2017). The participant’s baseline week was the control for this report.
The study then proceeded to the first intervention week (Week 2) where the participant received twice-daily Face2Faceinterventions. The intervention was facilitated by one of his school educators, during which time the participant continued to be in the classroom alongside his peers. The intervention was 10 min long and was delivered at approximately the same times each day. At the end of Week 2, following eight intervention sessions, the participant’s educators and parent each completed an SRS-2 based on the behavior seen during that week. The second intervention week (Week 3) was a duplicate of the first intervention week, and a repeat SRS-2 was completed at the end of the week.
The participant completed the intervention during two class periods, one general education class and one special education class. The structure of both classes allowed for the teacher to facilitate the intervention for 10 min during the class period, within his classroom, while another education professional was in the room.
During the intervention weeks, the participant received the intervention twice every school day during the same school periods (Figure 2). The intervention was provided by his general education teacher in the morning, and his special education teacher in the afternoon. One of the 16 interventions was provided by the paraprofessional during a class when the special education teacher was unexpectedly unavailable. The intervention ran concurrently to the class the participant was attending. The educator identifies a peripheral location in the classroom where the intervention was performed, with the student and educator sat facing each other (Figure 3).
Each intervention session was split into three segments, during which time the teacher was encouraged to engage in a natural conversation with the participant about relevant academic topics, for example a student’s current project, homework assignments, or academic activities of the day. Each intervention lasted 10-min. The three phases were as follows:
1) “Pre-Face2Face,” in which the participant and facilitator conversed without the Empowered Brain for 1 min;
2) “Face2Face,” in which the participant and facilitator conversed while the participant wore Empowered Brain running the Face2Face module for 8 min; and
3) “Post-Face2Face,” in which the participant and facilitator conversed without the Empowered Brain for 1 min.
During the Face2Face phase (Phase 2), the participant would wear the Empowered Brain and would experience the feedback coaching of the Face2Face module as he conversed with the educator. During the conversation, the Face2Facemodule monitored the level of attention the participant was directing to the educator’s face. The participant could gain game-like points and AR rewards when he looked toward the educator during the conversation. If the participant looked away from the educator, he would get visual and auditory guidance to help him redirect his attention back to the educator.
The participant was a white Caucasian male aged 13 years and 11 months. He was diagnosed with ASD by his pediatrician at the age of 2. He receives special education services with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) at a mainstream public school in Massachusetts.
The participant previously had ASD-related interventions including applied behavioral analysis, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy. He has previous experience with smartphone and tablet devices. He has no concurrent psychiatric disorders and was not receiving any psychotropic medication at the time of the study. Additionally, he has no history of epilepsy or seizures.
The Classroom Setting
This study was performed in a public middle school in Massachusetts, USA. The intervention was delivered twice-daily during school days. The first session was delivered by the student’s general education teacher during the morning general education class. This classroom setting consisted of 2 educators, the general educator teacher and a paraprofessional, looking after a class of 23 students. The second daily session was delivered by the student’s special education teacher during an afternoon special education class. The special education teacher was aided by a paraprofessional in looking after the 11 students in this class.
Consent and IRB Statement
The use of the Empowered Brain running on multiple head-worn computing devices by children and adults with ASD was approved by Asentral, Inc., Institutional Review Board, an affiliate of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The study was performed in accordance with relevant guidelines and regulations, and in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration. Written informed consent was obtained from all parents/legal guardians of all minors involved in this study. Consent to conduct this research was also obtained from all educators involved in the study. Written informed consent was obtained from the participant’s parent for the publication of their identifiable information.
The baseline school week concluded with no concerns by the participant’s teachers or parent (mother). All three school educators and parent completed the baseline SRS-2 at the end of the initial week.
The intervention was delivered to the participant on a total of 16 occasions over the 2-week intervention period, twice-daily during the 4 days of school in each week. School educators and the parent noted no usability or adverse effects that resulted in an intervention session being terminated early or being postponed. All three school educators and the participant’s parent completed an SRS-2 at the end of Week 2 and Week 3, following eight total intervention sessions and 16 total intervention sessions, respectively. The results of the SRS-2 ratings are outlined in Tables 1–4 (and in graphic format in Figure 4).
Table 1. Special education teacher.
Table 2. General education teacher.
Table 3. Parent (mother).
Table 4. Paraprofessional educator.
Figure 4. Total and subscale Social Responsiveness Scale 2nd Edition (SRS-2) T scores for educators and parent at baseline and at the end of the intervention weeks.
Emerging assistive technologies may help to augment the delivery of social communication interventions in educational settings. There is great demand for such technologies given the growing ASD student population and current lack of access to specialized resources. However, it is important to study several aspects of these technologies, including their usability, reliability, efficacy, but also the ability for users to use and benefit from the technologies in real-world settings. This is especially important when technologies are created for use in schools given the challenges in integrating assistive digital tools in the busy schedule and environment of a classroom.
The findings of our case study demonstrate preliminary evidence that this particular autism-focused intervention, the Empowered Brain, is associated with improvements in social communication. This improvement was observed through the use of the SRS-2, a gold standard and validated social communication scale. The student’s parent (mother), special educator teacher, and general education teacher, reported an improvement in the SRS-2 global scale in addition to improvement in social communication, social cognition, social motivation, and restricted interests and repetitive behavior subscales. The paraprofessional, who only provided a single intervention, did not note any substantial change in the SRS-2 total score.
Our findings have a number of implications and limitations, adding to the current literature in several important ways. Firstly, it was evident that a wide variety of school educators were able to use this smartglasses intervention with the student, despite this being their first experience with smartglasses. The school educators were keen to support the student’s social communication needs through technology. Secondly, the educators were able to use this technology in the school setting, and specifically within the same classroom that the child would otherwise be attending. Compared to a research setting, this dynamic classroom/school environment poses considerably more sensory, social, physical, and organizational challenges. Finally, the successful and timely completion of all 16 intervention sessions of Face2Facedemonstrates that this is a practical and usable technology in this setting. At no time were any issues of usability or negative effects with the use of Face2Face noted, and lack of adverse effects have been previously reported in a larger population (Sahin et al., 2018).
The potential adoption of this technology may have broad implications on the educational system. Anecdotal feedback from educators involved in the study suggested that they found the 10 min intervention sessions to be an important time period for assessment and relationship building. This has implications for the larger context of education, as it provides the teacher with additional tools (data and trust/social capital) to increase personal agency and effectiveness. The findings may also indicate a role for this intervention to address the socio-communicative challenges that often interfere with student engagement and teacher effectiveness in schools. Classrooms endeavoring to deliver an inclusive learning experience must balance administering differentiated content-based instruction that engages the unique abilities and needs of a neurodiverse student population while simultaneously identifying individual-specific disruptions in the learning process and implementing targeted interventions informed by data derived from observation and assessment (Table 5). Smartglasses, worn by student, can potentially serve as a non-invasive mechanism (or platform) to administer and monitor differentiated learning content as well as user-specific targeted interventions. Smart glasses, worn by the teacher, can potentially help to facilitate the collection of observational data in real-time and provide immediate feedback for action as well as long term goal setting and strategy developed during the IEP process (this has not yet been tested). Smart glasses and augmented reality as platforms for differentiated instruction and targeted intervention in schools (as described above) can theoretically be applied to every student in the classroom (based on their specific needs) and can fundamentally change the way academic content and curriculum is delivered as well as impacting the way educators are trained and evaluated. Software development for the device that can effectively address many of the pain points and lingering challenges educators and parents face is necessary to fully realize the potential of the platform.
Table 5. Advantages for the educational system.
Consideration must be given to a number of limitations of the study, both in regards to methodology and the findings. Firstly, this report is a case study, and there are limitations to the generalizability of our findings to the broader ASD student population. We have also noted that we had a limited number of data points in our study. While research on smartglasses in ASD has been quite limited, cohort studies following multiple learners would help to improve our understanding of the efficacy of such interventions across the spectrum. Further testing of this technology requires continuous measures to supplement the pre- and post-measures that have been obtained in this study. Additionally, it is important to replicate these results in order to understand causality.
Additionally, we have designed this intervention for use in the educational system of the United States. There is considerable variance in the curriculum, use of assistive technology, and availability of special education resources in educational systems across the world. While some systems would share many similarities with the United States, there may be a need to make cultural and country-specific adjustments to the technology. The authors note that the base hardware of the Empowered Brain, Google Glass, was never available for purchase in many countries across the world. Importantly, there are a number of additional challenges to the adoption of this technology by the educational system, including educator attitudes and cost-implications (Table 6).
Table 6. Potential challenges for broader adoption.
As with any intervention, there is always a possibility of a placebo effect. The smartglasses provide a game-like experience that augments a person’s normal perceptual experience. It is possible that such a novel experience is particularly prone to a placebo effect on the student, as well as the raters. On the other hand, people with ASD struggle with new experiences, and may also demonstrate extreme reactions to experiences that are difficult to their normal schedule, or that incorporate novel sensory stimuli (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It was therefore reassuring that over 16 sessions, this digital perceptual experience did not result in these well-documented ASD-related adverse behaviors such as tantrums and/or meltdowns.
In future studies, we intend to broaden the scope of our target population to include students with other cognitive-based learning disabilities. While measuring the effectiveness of particular apps, we will also monitor the impact on overall quality of time-on-task for teachers and students. Social and behavioral issues often interfere with both a teacher’s ability to convey content and skill, and the students’ ability to receive and absorb that content and skill. If our intervention can increase attending and reduce behavioral distractions, it should also have a positive impact on the quantity and quality of time spent “on task” for both teachers and students. If this proves to be the case, we can begin to predict and plan for how much time “on task” will be required to move toward proficiency and mastery for each child in the classroom.
Availability of Data and Material
Collected data (SRS-2) is included in this paper.
NS, JS, RL, RA-S, NK, and AV designed and undertook the intervention. The writing of this technology report was led by AV, and all authors contributed.
The authors have received generous funding support from the Game On For Autism Research (GoFAR) Foundation and Leslie S. T. Fang Foundation. Additionally, this work has been supported by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, through the Autism Research Program under Award No. W81XWH 17-1-0449. Early work to transform smartglasses into biomedical sensors was supported in part by the United States Army Medical Research and Materiel Command under Contract No. W81XWH-14-C-0007 (awarded to TIAX, LLC). Opinions, interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the authors and are not necessarily endorsed by the Department of Defense.
Conflict of Interest Statement
This report was supported by Brain Power, a neurotechnology company developing a range of artificially intelligent wearable technologies. Brain Power has engineering and technical partnerships with major technology companies and also receives funding support from federal and congressional sources. The authors all hold research or technical affiliations or employment with Brain Power. NS is the inventor of the Empowered Brain, and has multiple patents pending worldwide in relation to this intervention.
The authors thank the participants for their time and important contributions to our work. The authors thank Google, Inc., (Mountain View, CA, USA) for a generous grant and also the Glass team at X (formerly Google X) for technical guidance on Glass software development. The authors also thank Amazon and Amazon Web Services for support, guidance, and access to pre-release artificial intelligence tools. The authors are also grateful to Affectiva for their emotion artificial intelligence technology that has helped to enable this work.
AI, Artificial Intelligence; AR, Augmented Reality; ASD, Autism Spectrum Disorder; IEP, Individualized Education Program; SRS-2, Social Responsiveness Scale 2.
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Keywords: autism, assistive technology, digital health, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, mental health, social communication, special education
Citation: Sahin NT, Abdus-Sabur R, Keshav NU, Liu R, Salisbury JP and Vahabzadeh A (2018) Case Study of a Digital Augmented Reality Intervention for Autism in School Classrooms: Associated With Improved Social Communication, Cognition, and Motivation via Educator and Parent Assessment. Front. Educ. 3:57.
Received: 03 April 2018; Accepted: 25 June 2018;
Published: 13 September 2018.
Tom Crick, Swansea University, United Kingdom
Copyright © 2018 Sahin, Abdus-Sabur, Keshav, Liu, Salisbury
*Correspondence: Ned T. Sahin, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Case Study of a Digital Augmented Reality Intervention for Autism in School Classrooms: Associated With Improved Social Communication, Cognition, and Motivation via Educator and Parent Assessment
Smartglasses are a novel assistive technology that can help facilitate social communication and behavioral coaching for students with ASD. The use of the Face2Face module by educators over a 2-week period was associated with improvements in social communication.This study supports the use of this novel technology to deliver assistive social communication and behavioral coaching in schools.
Improved Socio-Emotional and Behavioral Functioning in Students with Autism Following School-Based Smartglasses Intervention: Multi-Stage Feasibility and Controlled Efficacy Study
A substantial number of school children with ASD demonstrate chronic and impairing cognitive and behavioral challenges. This study provides evidence that Empowered Brain, a smartglasses-based socio-emotional aid for autism, is both feasible and efficacious in improving symptoms of social withdrawal, irritability, and hyperactivity in students with autism. The improvement is demonstrated as part of a longitudinal school-based intervention. Further studies involving larger samples and incorporation of randomized controlled trial methodology are underway to further elucidate the impact of this technology.
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