Son’s autism diagnosis alters research focus of UK engineer

Computer engineer Samson Cheung started his post-doctoral work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2002. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, his field, video surveillance, was expanding rapidly with research and technology.

Cheung brought that research to the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering in 2004. Then, in 2006, Cheung’s son was born. And after the boy was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 , Cheung’s personal and professional lives shifted in profound ways.

“I didn’t know anything about autism before his diagnosis,” Cheung said. “I was looking for ways to help him.”

He soon began to look at ways to apply his background in multimedia to help children with autism, including one of their major symptoms — varying difficulties with communication. In 2012, Cheung got an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to put some of his ideas into practice.

The first big breakthrough is what Chueng calls the MEBook. He found that while most people’s brains specifically recognize human faces, many people with autism see no difference between an object and a person. The exception is their own face, Cheung said.

“They don’t observe other people, but they like to observe themselves,” he said.

Thanks to the work of graduate students Nikiruka Uzuegbunam and Ju Shen, the MEBook allows children to see themselves, in a narrative story on a device, saying hello and goodbye to teachers and friends. Then a game component challenges them to repeat those actions in real life. If they do so, the game congratulates them with screen confetti or something else they like, such as balloons. The technology allows each game to be personalized to each child, which is important because of how individualized autism therapy must be, Cheung said.

“We hope to change behavior by getting these children to look at their better selves,” he said. “That builds self-confidence. It could be used for any kind of behavior.”

The MEBook has undergone a small pilot study.

“The hard question is, how can we translate the hardware into customizable software?” Cheung said.

Cheung is also working on the hardware. He went to Google with his research, and they gave him a Google Glass, the wearable computer that fits into a tiny screen in eyeglasses. Google Glass has sensors that can track eye gaze. In the first phase of the technology, Cheung engineered the camera piece of the screen to determine whether the wearer is looking at someone’s face. If they are, the screen shows the wearer a happy yellow smiley face. If they are looking elsewhere, the screen’s background turns to a red frown.

That technology is in very early stages, but Cheung is starting to display his work at autism conferences around the country.

“I get a lot of excitement,” he said. “This is a rapidly growing field.”

Cheung credits numerous collaborators, including graduate students and colleagues from the UK Chandler Medical Center and the College of Education, who help him through their own research. He said that so much attention has been paid to research on diagnosing autism, there has been less research on interventions and education.

Lisa Ruble, a psychologist and autism researcher at UK’s College of Education, said a recent national report found that only 13 percent of autism research was related to intervention.

“I think the work he is doing is really unique in using engineering to promote teaching to help people with autism learn best,” she said of Cheung.

The video self-modeling, for example, could help save hours of personal therapy and help kids faster, Ruble said.

More researchers are joining the therapy and intervention field, Cheung said, which he welcomes.

“The more, the merrier,” he said. “We can use all the help we can get.”

As for the talk about the cause of autism, or a possible cure, Cheung says he wishes the best for that work.

“I hope that people will come up with a cure,” he said. “But for me, for day-to day-life, I need to figure out ways to help these kids now.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford