Thousands of parents of children with autism have wished at one time or another that they could find a way to encourage their children to make eye contact. So when Heidi Kershaw finally thought of a solution, she wasn’t about to let the idea die just because it was a challenging one.
Heidi was sitting in on a therapy session for her 7-year-old son, who has autism, when she came up with the idea. She noticed that her son was easily distracted from his therapist’s face in favor of the image of Mickey Mouse on the TV in the corner of the room. If only the therapist had a picture of Mickey on her forehead, Heidi thought, her son might finally pay attention to the session.
Rolling this idea around in her head, Heidi came up with a plan for a set of glasses that would digitally project images on the lenses. A therapist or parent could wear the glasses and project a child’s favorite image on it in order to encourage a child to practice making eye contact.
Of course, the idea was an expensive one. When Heidi, who is the senior vice president of operations at the Entertainment Industry Foundation in Los Angeles, presented it to some engineering firms, she was told that it wasn’t feasible, as it would cost about $1 million to design and develop. But Heidi wasn’t about to drop the idea.
Next, she pitched her plan to the Brigham Young University Engineering Capstone Program. Seniors in this program take on a two-semester project related to mechanical, manufacturing, electric, or computer engineering. Luckily, a team of three mechanical engineering students and three electrical engineering students was willing to take on the challenge.
The team, sponsored by Heidi, came up with two different prototypes. The one that Heidi chose resembles a virtual reality headset and features two LDC screens, two sheets of teleprompter glass, and a speaker.
The glasses allow the user to project an image onto the lenses and control the opacity of that image. As the opacity goes down, the user’s eyes become more visible behind the image. The hope is that the glasses will allow therapists and parents to stream an animation for nonverbal autistic children to watch and then decrease the opacity over time, helping the children establish eye contact.
“There are a lot of studies that suggest nonverbal children with autism will not start their speech until they are able to make eye contact,” says BYU adjunct professor Darrell Goff, who coached the Capstone Engineering project. “And so the glasses are designed to help those nonverbal children to be able to engage eye contact, and then that becomes the foundation for them to start their speech and social development.”
The glasses are considered a medical device, so they will be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and will need to undergo testing and clinical trials before they’ll be available for the public to use.
When these glasses finally hit the market, however, they will hopefully help nonverbal autistic children become more comfortable with maintaining eye contact. Goff says he believes they may help new neural pathways form that will affect how these children behave and learn for the years to come.
“And then that gives them the skills and the attention (span) to be able to continue on in their development,” says Goff. ‘And so that eye-contact is absolutely crucial. There’s a number of studies that confirm that that’s just a crucial part of the (child’s) development.”
Matt Simmons, a BYU student who worked on the project, says that he and his team knew from the beginning that their project had the potential to be lifechanging for children with autism and their families.
“Our hope is that therapists who work with children with autism will use these glasses to create that positive experience and help these wonderful children continue to develop,” he says.
We’d like to send a big kudos and a thank you out to Matt Simmons, Jayden Olsen, Mouri Zakir, Seth Hamson, Jeffrey Pyne, and Blaine Oldham, all of whom worked on this project. We can’t wait to see your product in action!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?