A hugely successful Gastronomic Lunch, held yesterday by Neil and Donna Slater with the help of Hunter chefs and waitstaff, has raised over $100,000 to primarily support a project aiming to teach autistic children to look people in the eyes.
The research team – comprising Professor Ulli Schall, Associate Professor Carmel Loughland and Dr Linda Campbell from the University of Newcastle and HMRI’s Brain and Mental Health Program – will use technologies such as eye-tracking, EEG (electroencephalogram) brain scanning and a tile matrix game help autistic children process facial information more effectively.
“The main problem for these children is their difficulties with socialising and communication,” Associate Professor Carmel Loughland explains. “If you’re not looking someone in the eye, if you’re not able to read social cues, if you can’t interpret the emotions people are expressing, this has huge consequences for you being able to feel part of society.
“That’s a very sad outcome for these lovely young people.”
The team has a long track record in facial recognition studies, where they record the eye movements of people while looking at social images. For this study they will recruit 30 children, aged 6 to 12, with mild to moderate autism.
“They’ll view faces on a computer screen and we’ll be able to record their eye movements in real time, to see how many fixations the participant make and how long they spend focused on those places,” Associate Professor Loughland adds.
“At the same time we can use EEG to record brainwave frequency, so we know which parts of the brain are lighting up and functioning at the time of the test. They can then use our Face Tile Matrix where they remove tiles from a face image to detect the emotional state.”
The latter can be played in game format on an iPad or tablet, which many teenagers with autism frequently use at home.
The challenge is to remove as few tiles as possible in order to make a confident decision about the expressed emotion and to waste as little game credits as possible. Children learn that removing tiles over the eye and mouth maximises the chances of performing well.
Once validated to effectively improve children’s social communication skills, the intervention can be scaled up and made widely available as a computer app.
Newcastle mother Trish, who’s son Max has severe autism, feels the study will help to overcome one of her lingering concerns.
“Max doesn’t have any friends, he doesn’t go to sleepovers or parties – it’s really isolating because of his behaviour,” she says. “So the thing that keeps you awake at night is worrying about who’s going to look after Max when I’m gone.
“Can they be employed? Can they have sustainable friendships and social interaction out in the community when we’re no longer here? We can help prepare for that by ensuring our children are as self-sufficient as possible.”