Personalised multi-user games may help children with autism and intellectual disabilities to improve social skills

A two-day international conference which opens in Queen’s University Belfast today will explore the challenges and future directions of research and policy in the fields of intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorders, including how technologies such as computer games may improve the lives of those with these conditions.

The 4th international DOCTRID Conference will bring leaders from academia, clinical practice and service providers together with families and carers of those with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. The DOCTRID Research Institute (DRI) is coordinated by Professor Brian Harvey, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and has a strong research focus on the role which assistive technology can play in improving the lives of people with disability.

Among the research being presented at the conference is a project with the aim of helping children with intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to practice and improve their social skills through the use of personalised multi-user games. The project which is being carried out by Mr. Bryan Boyle from the Qatar Assistive Technology Centre in collaboration with Dr Inmaculada Arnedillo-Sanchez, Department of Computer Science and Statistics, Trinity College Dublin, is researching the design of collaborative learning games which will facilitate learning of social interaction skills. Due to difficulties in social interaction, children with ASD are often restricted to playing alone or engaging in a narrow repertoire of behaviours and interests. Existing commercial technology solutions for children with ASD focus on single user interaction but the new research being presented at the conference outlines the rationale for and development of a multi-user game to provide children on the autism spectrum a means to build, practice and consolidate their social interaction skills.

Professor Brian Harvey, Director of Research of the DOCTRID Research Institute and Professor of Molecular Medicine at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland says ‘We are looking forward to welcoming our colleagues from across Ireland, Europe and the US to Queen’s University Belfast for the 4th International DOCTRID Conference. This meeting will provide a platform to create awareness of how multidisciplinary collaborative research can bring about practical changes to improve the lives of those with Intellectual Disability (ID) or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)’.

Other research presented over the two-day conference includes:

An alarm system for everyday hazards in the home – Researchers in Dublin City University are developing a home alarm system which can alert people with ID/ASD and their carers to hazards in the home (e.g. alerting to open doors and windows can prevent bolting, or alerting to fire or hot surfaces). These hazards have been identified and prioritised based on working with children with autism in their home.

Sensor technologies to help manage temper outbursts – A team in Queen’s University Belfast will present the initial findings from a study aimed at developing a training programme for caregivers to teach them how to reduce the number of temper outbursts in children with ID/ASD when dealing with a change in the child’s routine. In a related project, researchers in IT Tralee are using sensor technology to track the movement and emotions of children with autism which can be used to predict the occurrence of a temper outburst.

Is there a link between the pregnancy nutrition and childhood health outcomes? – Researchers in Michigan State University are examining the prenatal risk factors for impaired cognitive and behavioural development by developing a comprehensive biological, clinical and epidemiological database. The overall goals of the study are to examine if there is a link between the pregnancy nutritional environment and childhood health outcomes, e.g. maternal iodine deficiency leads to a wide range of neuro-intellectual deficits in affected offspring, but little is known of the effects of mild to moderate iodine insufficiency in pregnancy.

The DOCTRID Conference will focus of four key topics: ‘Quality of Life and Social Inclusion; Gaps and innovations in service delivery; Prevention and Epidemiology; and Future of Assistive Technologies’.

The current research programmes within the DOCTRID Research Institute will also be highlighted at the conference, including the €9M EU Marie Curie ASSISTID programme which will support 40 researchers to undertake projects in Assistive Technologies for ID/ASD over the next four years. The ASSISTID Programme is currently seeking applications from a broad spectrum of disciplines including social science, behavioural psychology, engineering, special education, computer science and rehabilitation studies. The Michigan State University-DOCTRID Hegarty fellowships, two year projects co-located between MSU and Irish DOCTRID partner universities, will also be highlighted at the event.

For further information on The DOCTRID Research Institute or to find out more about the ASSISTID programme.

The DOCTRID Research Institute (DRI) was established as a research network in 2010 encompassing all the universities on the island of Ireland, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dundalk, Dublin and Tralee Institute of Technology together with Michigan State University and University of Massachusetts Medical School in the US and Designability at Bath Institute of Medical Engineering in the UK. The DRI is committed to undertaking evidence-based research to inform intellectual disability policy and practice to ensure social inclusion, independent living, and education and employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities or autism spectrum disorders with a particular interest in the role which Assistive Technology can play in improving the lives of people with disability.

  RCSI Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 123 St Stephens Green, Dublin 2, Ireland.  Tel: +353 1 402 2100