Google Glass shows therapeutic promise for children with autism

Five years after the first Explorer editions of Google Glass went on sale, researchers have uncovered a genuinely good use for the ostentatious and expensive eyewear. It’s early days, but it appears to have potential with helping children with autism recognise other people’s emotions.

The study involved 14 families with autistic children, aged between three and 17. Each was given a Google Glass headset with custom facial recognition software, which would pop up an emoji matching the emotion identified on people in real time.

As well as this free-use mode, there were two additional modes in the app: “Capture the Smile” encourages children to find someone whose expression matches that of the emoji, while “Guess the Emotion” requires kids to identify emotions they see.

On top of this, a green light pops up on the screen to congratulate children for making eye contact – something people with autism often struggle with.

Over the course of the six-week trial, caregivers were instructed to play the game with children three times per week for 20 minutes, and the results are hugely encouraging.

Parents completed questionnaires about their children’s social skills before and after the Google Glass therapy. A score of 60 or below means no symptoms of autism, while 60-65, 65-75 and 75+ represent mild, moderate and severe autism respectively. Over the course of the six weeks, the average score fell from 80.07 (severe) to 72.93 (moderate).

Of course, questionnaires are subjective, and to that end 11 of the children also took part in an emotional recognition exam at the start and again at the end of the treatment, where an examiner acted out the eight emotions and children guessed what they were feeling. Before, the average score was 28.45/40. After: 38/40.

Before we get too carried away, there are a couple of caveats to highlight. First of all, this is a small trial – 14 people isn’t many for a scientific study. More importantly, there was no control group – that’s to say that the researchers weren’t studying anyone who wasn’t using Google Glass. It’s possible that they too could have seen similar changes over time.

Suffice to say that both of these concerns are being worked through in a follow-up study with 74 children aged between six and 12. If that confirms the original findings, this could be a big deal.

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This kind of emotional recognition therapy can be done by humans, but bluntly there aren’t enough qualified therapists to do it, and waiting lists tend to be measured in months and years. If therapy could be outsourced to Google Glass at an earlier point in autistic children’s formative years, it could make a real difference to millions of lives.

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