Bilikis Banire is a Ph.D student in computer science and engineering at Qatar Foundation member Hamad Bin Khalifa University. She is currently leading Qatar Foundation’s innovative project to non-invasively measure the attention spans of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Q&A on autism research using VR technology
1. Why are attention spans important? What issues arise when teachers fail to recognise signs that children with autism need a break or are frustrated, for example?
The ability to pay attention directly influences how an individual acquires skills and when children aren’t able to pay attention it can be a clear sign that they may react negatively to certain tasks.
When teachers fail to recognise this, it makes it extremely difficult to identify which learning materials can be productive and increases the likelihood of the child becoming frustrated. This can result in either poor or no assimilation of content and lead to the child refusing to learn in subsequent sessions.
Understanding attention spans is central to improving learning experiences for children with ASD. Children with ASD typically have shorter attention spans than other children, and their learning pace can be different. To be successful, teaching methods must recognise and be tailored to these nuanced differences.
2. You’ve been working on a virtual reality-based project to explore attentions spans further. Why virtual reality?
The essence of virtual reality is to mimic real-life scenarios and it can be a very useful tool for evaluating responses based on mock environments. The core advantage of the technology is that if we encounter any issues, it has little or no impact on the user compared to a real environment.
Virtual reality is also particularly well-suited to those with autism, as they often prefer three-dimensional formats to traditional learning modes. Turning to virtual, perception-driven experiences to develop our attention test allowed us to navigate real world problems in the comfort of an implied setting.
3. Could you outline the virtual reality which will help teachers to understand the needs of pupils with autism?
Working with Texas A&M University in Qatar, we developed a mixed reality attention test for children that can be viewed on a 3D or conventional monitor. The children who took part were expected to pay attention to random letters and click the keyboard when a particular letter appears. Their scores were used to evaluate their attention level.
While taking the test in our preliminary study, the children were monitored with a webcam so we could analyse their facial expressions in a non-obtrusive way. From this, we identified 4 facial expressions and movements that give a clear indication of the subject paying attention: brow raise, lip suck, lip press, and mouth open.
The raw data collected from this is fed into an algorithm used to design a model to predict and monitor attention. Once complete, teachers will be able to use the model to inform their own teaching practices. With the right equipment, they could also use the same method to receive individual results, specific to each student.
4. How will the VR work in day-to-day teaching – is there a camera/monitor needed, for example?
Our study can aid in the design of technology and learning programmes for children with ASD. It could also be possible for teachers to conduct the study when beginning to work with a new student with ASD, to learn more about what works best for them. They would need a webcam, eye tracking device and a 3D or conventional screen to run the test, as well as the application software.
5. How can the VR help students to work more independently?
The test is designed to increase students’ awareness of their attention spans, as much as the teacher’s awareness. Changes in facial expression and eye-tracking can trigger a warning that alerts students when they are distracted, encouraging them to refocus on the task at hand. This will help them to learn more independently in both the short and long term.
6. What are the next steps for the project?
Another common metric of measuring attention is task performance. One of the next steps for our project is to analyse the data we have on facial expressions and see if it correlates directly with task performance. We’ll also be doing more work on the model we’re developing to identify when children with ASD best pay attention based on machine learning algorithms.
7. Is there scope for the VR to be rolled out into the home or workplace, to help adults with autism focus on a task?
At the moment, we’re focusing on children with ASD based on a VR simulated classroom. Further studies will consider more specifically how we can help children to focus both at home and in physical classrooms. We also hope to conduct future research into assisting adults with ASD in the workplace.
For more information on Qatar Foundation, see qf.org.qa