Yale researchers develop AI technology for adults with autism – AutismSTEP
Researchers from several American universities are collaborating to develop artificial intelligence based software to help people on the autism spectrum find and hold meaningful employment.
The project is a collaboration between experts at Vanderbilt, Yale, Cornell and the Georgia Institute of Technology. It consists of developing multiple pieces of technology, each one aimed at a different aspect of supporting people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the workplace, according to Nilanjan Sarkar, professor of engineering at Vanderbilt University and the leader of the project.
“We realized together that there are some support systems for children with autism in this society, but as soon as they become 18 years old and more, there is a support cliff and the social services are not as much,” Sarkar said.
The project began a year ago with preliminary funding from the National Science Foundation. The NSF initially invested in around 40 projects, but only four — including this one — were chosen to be funded for a longer term of two years.
“We’re very excited to be part of that selection,” said Brian Scassellati, the A. Bartlett Giamatti professor of computer science, mechanical engineering and materials science at Yale. “I think it’s a recognition of how important this problem is and how close we are to being able to help people.”
People on the autism spectrum tend to have strong visual reasoning abilities and often see puzzles differently from how a neurotypical person might see them. Companies find it beneficial to hire people with strong visual and spatial abilities because these skills can be very useful, especially for working in technology, according to Maithilee Kunda, assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering at Vanderbilt University.
Kunda leads the effort to develop AI and cognitive modeling that analyzes a person’s visual reasoning abilities. Then, based on the analysis, people are connected with job positions they might excel in. This is done through an assessment consisting of a series of puzzles during which the test-taker wears an eye-tracker and is monitored with cameras. The researchers then use the measurements they take from both the sensors and the test to study the visual thinking process of the test-taker, according to Kunda.
Several years ago, Kunda realized “you can give two people the same set of problems to do and they can both be equally successful solving the problems correctly, but they could be doing it in completely different ways,” she said. “This is like the great mystery of cognitive science. All these things are happening inside your head and we cannot directly measure them.”
Eighty percent of people with ASD are either unemployed or underemployed, according to Sarkar. However, Kunda pointed out that often the issue is not with someone’s job abilities but rather with their social skills.
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