Tech & Work

Asperger's and social interaction: Learn to speak in colors

Asperger's Syndrome, a disorder on the high end of the autism spectrum disorders, may be more common among those in the technical fields. Now, a new technology developed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained professor may help correct some social interaction problems common to those with Asperger's.

Asperger's Syndrome, a disorder on the high end of the autism spectrum disorders, may be more common among those in the technical fields. Now, a new technology developed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained professor may help correct some social interaction problems common to those with Asperger's.

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Last year around this time, I wrote a blog about the connection between Asperger's Syndrome and IT. Asperger's is on the high end of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and is characterized by social difficulties, restricted, stereotyped interests and activities, and obsessive or repetitive routines. People with Asperger's often have sophisticated vocabularies but experience trouble with social interaction.

Many TechRepublic members who responded in the discussion following that piece said they either had Asperger's or had wondered about the connection. For that reason, when I came across a piece about a new computer program developed to let such people "see" how they are communicating, I was intrigued.

Karrie Karahalios, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says her computer program, which she calls a "conversation clock," provides feedback in real time and can act as a type of social mirror, allowing people to adjust their speech in the same way "they adjust their appearance before a glass mirror."

Here's how it works: Subjects are fitted with a microphone matched to a color and attached to a computer. Each voice appears on a computer terminal as a color — red, yellow, blue, green — and the images grow in size if the voice gets louder, overlaps another color as it interrupts, or abruptly narrows with silence. The program was tested on children with Asperger's, and the testers found the subjects (who normally had a tendency to speak in long monologues) were able to "see" this pattern in terms of their color on the screen. From these visual clues, the subjects tended to adapt their conversational patterns in order to balance the colors on the screen.

Karahalios is still developing techniques for the program. The researchers are not sure yet if the adaptive behaviors will carry over once the subjects are away from the screen. It sounds like an interesting endeavor though.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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