User-friendly app for gauging autism

New app for youth with autism helps measure and understand the disorder

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech, and nonverbal communication. This once misunderstood disorder affects a broad range of communications skills and behaviours.

According to Public Health Agency Canada, one in 66 Canadian children are diagnosed with autism.

For those diagnosed with autism and their families, social abilities impact relationships and everyday experiences. But measuring social interaction limitations has proven difficult. Dr. Forgeot D’arc and his Mitacs Globalink Intern, Ouarda Fenek — a visiting Mitacs Globalink Research Intern studying data science in a computer science program at Université Pierre et Marie Curie Paris, France — are taking on this challenge by quantifying and qualifying theories with an app.

They are working to understand the autistic person’s perspective and provide a numerical assessment of the severity of their condition.

“We want to be able to mimic some fundamental aspect of natural interaction, while getting a standard situation to measure cognitive parameters of the person. Measuring cognitive function is a starting point for several things in medicine; it improves interventions and predicts outcomes,” says Dr. Forgeot d’Arc.

It is advancing both an understanding of autism and technology that may help develop future support programs. It’s focused on measuring social interaction through a classic penny-hiding game — a non-verbal test where one person hides a penny in one of their hands, out of sight, and the other person has to guess the penny’s location. Players are placed in social and non-social conditions to measure three indexes: performance, sophistication of strategies to win the game, and cognitive flexibility allowing them to switch strategies. From there, severity of symptoms can be measured as well as how to influence them. 


Accurate results by playing a game

Tests used to evaluate the social skills of an individual don’t often happen in a realistic environment. But with the BrainUs app, the individual is directly playing against an opponent and has to establish strategies in order to win. 

“Most of the time, tests evaluate social skills with subjective measures, like questionnaires, that rely on the understanding and subjective impression of people and are subject to different sorts of biases. The only objective tests available are based on static situations. For example, you are told a story and must guess the end. That is very different from problem solving in real social-life, in which you have to continuously make decisions. Here, we are able to test social interaction in real time, during an interaction. Technology gives us access to individuals’ cognitive parameters that are usually not accessible to observation during a social interaction,” says Dr. Forgeot d’Arc.


Connecting the data to intervention

The team brings an important element to assess the effectiveness of a potential program’s elements or strategies. For example, the feedback provided by the task could be used to train individuals and improve some cognitive strategies.

“Previously, a study made with autistic adults using BrainUS allowed us to match 69 percent of the participants with their diagnostics,” says Ouarda. “We hope to show the same results in the pediatric population in order to validate the app, which can become a psychological testing tool helping the clinician in his practice.” 

Going forward, “we want to give immediate feedback in terms of performance, sophistication, and strategy to the players. We believe that it might motivate patients and maybe help them challenge themselves in their strategies,” says Ouarda.


Taking analysis skills to new contexts

Ouarda has worked on data analysis projects but this is the first time she’s applied her skills in an autistic population. “Combining the social and medical aspects of the project was one of the most attractive aspects to me. It was also the first time I assisted the data gathering phase, so I was in direct contact with the kids. I really like the fact that I’m seen as an international student and not as a foreign one. The diversity and the great welcome that I found in Université de Montréal shows how open it is. Everyone was in to deliver any information needed, to guide, and help.”

“This experience is definitely something that marked my academic life. It is a great opportunity that I had working in such a big research lab, especially that I’m seriously considering pursuing PhD studies.”

This study will help inform a range of other research. “Studies in genetics, as well as in pharmacology and other types of interventions, are currently limited by our poor ability to measure how individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions and disorders differ. This work is a step in the direction of identifying and measuring cognitive mechanisms at the core of neurodevelopment of social interaction,” says Dr. Forgeot d’Arc.

Ouarda is taking a few soft skills back with her when she returns to France as well. “I think the most important values when working on big projects are to be well-organized and respectful of schedules. Working with a team, I think it’s really important that each member knows exactly what’s expected of them, and that all the members communicate well.”

Working in Canada has had its benefits, “One of the great aspects that I liked about working here is the relationship between supervisor and trainee; I’m used to some strict relationships. From what I see here, it is more like a collaborative relationship, where the ideas of the employee are heard and respected.”  


Globalink Acknowledgements – Summer 2019

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with the following international partners to support Globalink: Universities Australia; the China Scholarship Council; Campus France; the German Academic Exchange Service; Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico; and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.



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