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An App for Easing Autism

Monday, June 16, 2014
Think about how you talk to another person.

When it’s someone you know and are comfortable with, the conversation often has a natural pace and rhythm, and each person can understand some of how the other person feels by the emotional cues in the tone of his or her voice.

If it’s someone you don’t know well, the conversation might be more halting as you try to figure out if he or she is friendly, or even wants to talk to you.

Imagine always being stuck in the second scenario. That’s similar to what people with autism experience when they converse. They have a hard time interpreting emotions, and so a simple conversation can be extremely challenging.

Enter Keene State College psychology professor Lawrence Welkowitz, whose research aims to help people with autism learn to understand and mimic the subtle patterns of everyday speech.

His latest advancement is an iPad app designed to show what speech looks like visually, represented by sound waves.

That, he says, can help people with autism see and match how emotions are conveyed in their speech.

Autism spectrum disorders affect a child’s brain development. People with autism have difficulty interacting socially and communicating with others to varying degrees.

People with autism “don’t play that social game,” said Welkowitz, who has spent more than a decade researching the autism spectrum. He became especially interested in how the disorder affects speech and communication in 2005.

Welkowitz recently teamed with doctors at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine to measure the brain activity of high-functioning autistic adults.

Study participants use the app while the researchers look at their brain activity through an MRI scan. So far, the researchers say, results have been promising, but there’s still much more work to do.

Visuals are good for autistic people, who “tend to be more literal, concrete, visual,” according to Josh J. Green, a Keene native and former research assistant for Welkowitz.

Green is now doing his own research on autism and speech as a graduate student at the University of Connecticut.

When he was first developing the idea, Welkowitz used a simple audio recording program that shows sound waves as someone is speaking, essentially showing someone what it looks like when he or she talks.

With the help of digital company Museami, Green and Welkowitz worked to turn this visual feedback into an iPad app called SpeechMatch.

With SpeechMatch, people with autism can listen to and see the sound waves of a number of different phrases, each uttered with a different emotion. They try to match their own voice to one of these phrases, using the same type of emotion. Their voice will also show up as a sound wave, and they can see how closely their wave fits with the original, and get a numerical score for how closely they matched that emotion.

With years of work on the app under his belt, Welkowitz and project partner professor Karen Jennings, also of Keene State, are collaborating with a team of neurologists at Dartmouth to see exactly how the brain of people with autism reacts when they use the app.

These tests will show whether someone with autism can learn new speech patterns.

The researchers at Dartmouth just completed their first tests, and what they’ve found so far makes sense, according to Dr. Robert M. Roth, a Dartmouth researcher and associate professor of psychology.

“When they’re processing language, (there’s) quite a lot of activation in the left brain areas,” Roth said. The left brain controls executive functions and more concrete thinking.

Subjects “can repeat the sentence; that’s not the problem,” Roth said. But researchers are looking for activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain controlling emotion.

So far, researchers have seen the amygdala respond when participants use the app.

It’s a sign the brain of the autistic person is starting to make emotional connections. Hopefully, it’s a sign they are learning how to speak with some emotion, but the answer to that lies in continued research, according to Welkowitz and Roth.

For Welkowitz, actually seeing someone’s brain respond to his app is an experience he’s waited years for.

But the testing is still in its beginning stages, according to Roth. Now it’s time to write a proposal for a larger research grant so they can include people without autism in the study for comparison.

Roth says this project is different from what he’s worked on in the past because it’s asking people with autism to copy normal speech, rather than just recording their reactions to it.

“The task we’re putting together is rather novel,” he said. “I hope we’re able to continue with this.”

For Welkowitz, another exciting aspect of the project is that psychology students at Keene State have the chance to witness cutting-edge research at Dartmouth.

“We’re little Keene State College,” Welkowitz said. “What they’re being exposed to, I only wish I was exposed to as a college student.”

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