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Training tool helps autistic people become face aces

Patrick Dwyer,17, reacts to face recognition software, as he navigates his way around a computer game designed to help people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder express facial emotions.

Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

Sitting in front of a computer, 17-year-old Patrick Dwyer was engrossed in a game. One hand deftly manipulated the mouse, but the muscles in his face were getting a workout – twisting and stretching to register fear, delight, anger.

Making faces is the object of the game: To navigate FaceMaze, Mr. Dwyer had to mimic the expressions of his avatar's opponents on the screen. A small video camera captured his image, feeding a powerful software program that can read faces.

For Mr. Dwyer, the expressions don't come easily. "Maybe my braces are throwing it off," he volunteered when he struggled to make the right face. Behind him hovered researchers and the software developers, offering encouragement.

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Once he got the hang of it, however, he whipped through the levels with increasing confidence. "It's fun," he concluded.

FaceMaze is actually a training tool in disguise, designed to help people with autism navigate social interactions in the real world.

"We want to close the gap between the small screen and the big world," said University of Victoria psychologist Jim Tanaka.

The backbone of the simple game is face-recognition software, developed by the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Centre in San Diego.

The program is designed to recognize the messages that are communicated by the complex network of muscles that make up the human face, and it is sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a genuine smile and a phony one.

Dr. Tanaka, who specializes in face recognition, saw the program as a potential tool to help people with autism overcome an invisible barrier.

Our faces communicate a huge range of information, and most people are processing that data without really being aware of it. "A lot of social interaction happens below the threshold of awareness," he explained.

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But for people with autism spectrum disorders, like Mr. Dwyer, those messages can be difficult to read. And if you don't "speak" the language, chances are you don't send the right messages back. This impairment may explain the social dysfunction often associated with autism.

Last summer, Dr. Tanaka launched UVic's Centre for Autism Research Technology and Education, where a small team is developing software programs like FaceMaze to help people with autism learn to read others' expressions – and to improve their ability to use their own faces to communicate as well.

A clinical trial with autistic youth showed improvements after just 20 hours playing these facial-recognition computer games – an encouraging start.

The centre officially opened in August, but it is more virtual than physical. There are no big research labs, just students and professors grabbing space where they can.

The co-director of the research centre, Joseph Sheppard, is a psychology student studying the mechanics of decision-making and the unique memory capacities association with autism. Mr. Sheppard also has autism.

"We have a unique way of perceiving the world," he notes. The ethic is reflected in the centre's motto: "New tools for different minds."

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But there is a stigma, too – people often are afraid to disclose that they are on the autism spectrum, Mr. Sheppard said. For Mr. Dwyer to agree to take part in software testing – and to be a public face for people with autism – took courage, he noted. "The bravery of Patrick gives me hope – I see him as a future leader," he said.

Without the ability to effectively interact using facial expressions, autism can be socially isolating. Mr. Sheppard spoke about a person with autism who did not have a single friend. He is working to harness the centre's resources to establish peer groups and orientation services at UVic: "We have a presence at the university," he said firmly. "And we are growing in numbers."

Dr. Tanaka shares the objective: "We would like UVic to be a destination campus for students on the spectrum."

Mr. Dwyer, invited to help test new software under development, has his foot in the door. He will graduate from high school next year and is planning to attend UVic in the fall.

Listening to Dr. Tanaka and Mr. Sheppard outline their plans for the campus, a cheer escapes from Mr. Dwyer's mother, Mary Ellen Ross.

Ms. Ross quit her job at the university when the challenge of raising two sons on the autism spectrum took over. The relief that there will be a support network for her son as he moves on to university, she said, is huge. "Now Patrick is getting ready for that huge adventure."



What it is

The University of Victoria's Centre for Autism Research Technology and Education is developing a series of interactive computer games to help children with autism spectrum disorder recognize, and make, facial expressions reflecting a range of emotions.

FaceMaze looks like the vintage computer game Pac-Man, where the gamer moves a character around a maze, overcoming obstacles. The player's face is monitored on a camera linked to face-recognition software. In order to move past an angry-face icon, the player must make an angry face, and so on.

With Face Revolution, moving images of real faces float across a screen. As with FaceMaze, the player must recognize and mimic expressions to score points. "Based on feedback from our community, we heard that FaceMaze was too avatar – it wasn't human enough," explains Jim Tanaka, the psychologist behind the program. With Face Revolution, users are challenged to recognize human expressions as they would in an exchange with another person.

How it works

The programs were assessed in a clinical trial to determine if children with autism could improve face-recognition skills through training. In a paper published last year in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, co-written by Dr. Tanaka, the trial showed promise.

- Justine Hunter

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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