BYU students create new glasses to help children with autism improve eye contact

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Leer en español: Estudiantes de BYU crean nuevas gafas que ayudan a los niños con autismo a mejorar el contacto visual

Video glasses created by BYU students that display animations to help children with autism pay attention to the therapist wearing the glasses. (Rebekah Baker/BYU Photo)

A capstone team of BYU electrical and mechanical engineering students created video glasses that display animations to help children with autism pay attention and increase eye contact with the therapist wearing the glasses.

Heidi Kershaw, a mother of a child with autism and the sponsor of the capstone project, came up with the idea during one of her son’s therapy sessions. After taking a break from the therapy session, both Kershaw and the therapist could not get her son’s attention back; he was too fixated on the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse show he was rewarded with during the break. Kershaw got increasingly frustrated that her son wouldn’t look at her and exclaimed “I wish I could just put Mickey Mouse up on my face!”

The therapist laughed, but Kershaw said she was determined to find a solution.

Kershaw reached out to many engineers around the world about her video glasses idea but was repeatedly told it was impossible or would cost a million dollars to make. “This hasn’t been done before, and it looks impossible. Or it is so expensive there is a barrier to even try,” she said.

Through a stroke of luck, she was told about the engineering capstone program at BYU by a close friend. Kershaw applied to be a sponsor and had her glasses invention accepted to be a project.

Capstone coach Darrell Goff helped guide the team of six engineering students: Matt Simmons, Seth Hamson, Jayden Olsen, Jeffery Pyne, Blaine Oldham and Mouri Zakir. Each member of the team expressed their excitement and motivation to create something that could impact people’s lives.

“I really wanted to be in a project that could directly help people like this. I couldn’t have asked for a better one,” Olsen said.

The team of students created a working prototype of the glasses in just a few short months. “Seeing (the prototype) completed and knowing we accomplished it together was a super cool feeling,” Hamson said. He said that the first achievement gave them the motivation to continue working on refining the product.

The glasses can either display animations or fade out to reveal the therapist’s eyes to help the child feel comfortable as they learn to establish eye contact. (Rebekah Baker/BYU Photo)

The therapist wears the glasses, which display animations on the lenses through a reflective process so they can see the child at all times, but the child sees the animations. Once the child starts feeling more comfortable, the therapist can reduce the opacity of the animations until the child sees the therapist’s eyes. This helps the child establish eye contact through a process that is comfortable for them. If the child becomes uneasy, the therapist can turn the animations back on at any time.

These glasses would be used during behavior therapy sessions to help autistic children become more comfortable with eye contact. They are also predominantly intended for nonverbal autistic children.

Capstone coach Darrell Goff said studies suggest nonverbal children with autism will not start their speech skills until they can make eye contact. “That’s the key behind these glasses, to help those children get to a point where they can start their verbal skills,” he said.

For the last 10 years, Goff has worked on projects dealing with neuroplasticity and forming new neural connections in the brain. He believes these glasses can help trigger a response in the child’s brain to form new neural pathways that will help the child feel more comfortable and provide a foundation for speech skills.

Besides helping with speech skills, Kershaw is hoping these glasses help children with autism have more confidence and interact easier with new people.

“There are social structures in place within our culture that make it difficult to connect without eye contact,” Kershaw said. Trust, confidence and connections are more difficult to create when eye-contact is not prevalent. She said people with autism are put at a disadvantage because of these social stigmas.

“It’s not that they can’t make connections, but it is more difficult for them to make the initial connections with people outside their family,” she said. Kershaw also talked about how during the pandemic, communication has come to rely on eye contact because masks cover the rest of the face.

The capstone students said they worked hard all year on perfecting the design and creating it the way Kershaw envisioned. “We all wanted to do a good job on this project to give something to our sponsor who obviously was very passionate about it,” Olsen said.

Olsen said she was excited to be a part of this project that helped improve people’s lives. “Relationships with people form the basis of human happiness. And there a lot of people who struggle with that for various reasons and this is one way we can help a group of people find happiness,” she said.

The team said they are planning to put the glasses through clinical trials and an approval process so they can be safely used by therapists. “If it is successful in clinical trials it will be one of the first technological solutions of helping kids get on the path of social and personal progress. And hopefully, the impact we can have is that we that are able to change lives,” Hamson said.

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