The AWARE event took place in the University of Edinburgh’s Informatics Forum on 25th September 2012. There were 39 delegates at the event, representing a wide range of academic institutions, commercial organisations, and organisations and individuals from within the autism community. The meeting had several goals:

  • to share academic and commercial expertise on developing technology to support people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC).
  • to model best practice in software development, involving end users in design and working from a strong theoretical and evidence base.
  • to explore ways of making academic research output available to the public for whom it was created.

The morning session comprised four presentations on the software development process. Thusha Rajendran gave a presentation on psychological theories of autism as a grounding for design; from her design work on the ECHOES project, our own Judith Good discussed the participatory design process; Kate Ho discussed the implementation process from the perspective of a commercial technology developer and Sue Fletcher-Watson tackled the thorny issue of evaluation.

I thought these presentations were excellent and fitted together very well. Thusha gave a concise and helpful summary of our current psychological understanding of ASC and how this can guide technology design; Judith’s presentation, emphasising the importance of giving the end-users a voice and the need for us, as researchers, to become better observers, reminded us why we do the work. I sensed that Kate Ho’s description of the implementation process, which included a discussion of technology options and finance, provided many with a useful insight into the practicalities of developing and distributing commercial software. In her presentation, Sue acknowledged the challenges of evaluation for products that traverse the divide between the academic and public arenas – balancing a responsibility to the community of users, with a recognition that the cost and timescales for a rigorous evaluation might not be appropriate for apps that are often inexpensive and ephemeral. She suggested adopting appropriate outcome models and expectations, and building assessment tools into platforms as steps toward addressing this difficult issue.

The morning presentations were followed by a chaired panel discussion with representatives from the autism community. The discussion focused on the panel members’ experience of using technology to support persons with ASC: how persons with ASC often have an affinity for technology; that it can be empowering, providing them with a safe space for self-expression and learning – though common sense needs to be exercised in managing its availability and use. The need for software that is age-appropriate (i.e. software that acknowledges an individual’s chronological age with respect to social and cultural interests while accommodating specific cognitive difficulties) and also the recognition that some of the best software is not autism-specific. Not for the first time, the issue of heterogeneity was raised – and hence the requirement that software can be customised for the particular needs of the individual. Also considered was the difficulty finding the right app when there are so many available – the issue of consistent and appropriate categorisation and, again, the problem of evaluation.

During the lunch break we had an opportunity to check out various interesting demos including ECHOES, the NAO programmable robot, Zhen Bai’s augmented reality research system and artist Wendy Keay-Bright’s ReacTickles software. I was hooked up to an EDA sensor for the afternoon, courtesy of Ilumivu.

In the afternoon session we had three case study presentations: Ofer Golan (Mindreading and The Transporters; Sarah Parsons (COSPATIAL) and Wendy Keay-Bright (ReacTickles and Somantics). I thought Wendy Keay-Bright’s work particularly inspiring.

This session was followed by a second panel discussion, with panel members from the academic, commercial and charitable sectors. Here the focus was on getting the technology developed in academic institutions into the public domain. Questions of access to technology, platform and version support, the costs of development and support were discussed in a sometimes intense debate. Concrete suggestions included collaboration with commercial organisations and tapping into one’s academic institution’s intellectual property and enterprise development expertise. Towards the end of the session we touched briefly on the fact that the standards and requirements of academia may be at variance with the demands of commercial sector – e.g. with respect to project timescales and product testing & evaluation criteria.

Beyond the interesting presentations and lively discussion panels, the AWARE event was a great opportunity for networking. I was struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of the people who attended the event, and for many I spoke with, autism is clearly more than a purely academic interest.