June 14, 2021

UCalgary research to give voice to minimally verbal autistic population

Project 1 of 8 from UCalgary to receive federal New Frontiers in Research Fund grant for high-risk, high-reward research
ChildWorksWithTablet
A child works with a tablet. Colourbox photo

A researcher at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering is hoping to use technology to give a voice for autistic people who face the daily challenges of communication.

Dr. Diwakar Krishnamurthy, PhD, is spearheading one of eight UCalgary projects awarded a New Frontiers in Research Fund 2020 Exploration grant in May 2021. Read a list of all projects awarded funding at the bottom of this article.

Krishnamurthy's work is focused on one of the world’s most-common developmental disabilities — autism.

According to the 2018 National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System Report, it affects one in 66 children in Canada. This includes one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls.

The $250,000 grant awarded to Krishnamurthy will go toward his exploration of next-generation communication technology for minimally verbal autistic individuals.

“About 30 per cent of all autistic people fall under that category,” he says. “Traditionally, this population has been heavily underestimated with ‘not speaking’ being falsely equated to ‘not thinking.’”

Krishnamurthy says that mindset has led to people being denied access to meaningful education and poor socio-economic outcomes.

I passionately believe that technology can help these individuals communicate their inner thoughts and feelings better, thereby vastly improving their quality of life.

UCalgary researchers from the Cumming School of Medicine, and Faculties of Science and Veterinary Medicine were also awarded funding in the competition.

“Groundbreaking research requires scholars to take risks, and consider novel approaches to complex challenges,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “We are exceptionally proud of these interdisciplinary groups of scholars who are exploring paths less taken in pursuit of transformative research.”

Talking the talk

Studies estimate that a lack of effective autism interventions could cost Canada $30 billion annually.

Right now, Krishnamurthy says training on the use of speech- or picture-based communications systems, like tablets, hasn’t been effective for minimally verbal individuals.

“For example, they don’t address the sensory, motor and attentional needs of these individuals,” he says. “Augmented and mixed reality (AR/MR) technology, in combination with wearable sensors, offers a lot of promise for designing non-verbal communication systems tailored to the needs of this population.”

He’s also looking at holographic keyboards and wrist-worn sensors to help minimally verbal autistic people communicate, as they can be adapted to the unique needs of these users.

Walking the walk

Not only will Krishnamurthy be looking to spend the next two years researching and testing the technology, he also wants to work with as many people as possible.

His collaborators include Dr. Mea Wang, PhD (University of Calgary, Computer Science) and Dr. Vikram Jaswal, PhD (University of Virginia, Psychology).

“Our team is truly cross-disciplinary, consisting of software engineers, autism scientists, therapists focusing on sensory-motor issues, and autistic people and their caregivers,” he says. “Our work will inform the best strategies for developing practical communication software that can improve inclusion in educational and social settings.”

Krishnamurthy also believes this will provide a great experience for Schulich students, who will be able to work with the technology and with those whose lives they will be affecting.

“This will ensure that the lived experience of these individuals is reflected in software/technology designed by our team to help them,” he says. “This is a critical aspect that has been historically ignored, to the detriment of this population.”

Krishnamurthy adds he is grateful for the grant, and the ability to work on something with a real-world impact.

“This is high-risk, high-reward research that demands integration of diverse disciplines,” he sums up. “I am extremely excited that this funding has made this collaboration a reality.”

New Frontiers in Research Fund 2020 Exploration grant recipients

UCalgary researchers awarded New Frontiers in Research Fund 2020 Exploration grants are:

  • Dr. John Aycock, PhD (Faculty of Science): FrAG: A Framework for Large-Scale Archaeological and Technical Analysis of Videogames
  • Dr. Steven Boyd, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): Altering Bone Microarchitecture and Mechanics by Off-Label Pharmaceutical Intervention Following an Acute Knee Injury
  • Dr. Sabine Gilch, PhD (Faculty of Veterinary Medicine): Establishing a Cervid Stem Cell-Derived Infection Model for Chronic Wasting Disease Prion
  • Dr. Diwakar Krishnamurthy, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering): Exploring Next Generation Communication Technology for Minimally Verbal Autistic Individuals
  • Dr. Daniel Obalak, PhD (Faculty of Science): Uncovering the Origin and Role of Ultra-Weak Bio-Photons using Quantum Measurement Technology
  • Dr. Prism Schnieder, MD, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): Breaking the Cycle of Intimate Partner Violence: Education, Identification, and Intervention
  • Dr. Leslie Skeith, MD (Cumming School of Medicine): Catalyzing Research Innovation: Developing a Web-Based Application with Social Media Capabilities to Coordinate Thrombosis Research Efforts
  • Dr. Mark Ungrin, PhD (Faculty of Veterinary Medicine): Somatic Engineering - A New Approach to Medical Intervention

This prestigious group represents the breadth and depth of the research and expertise at the University of Calgary, representing a number of the institutes within the Cumming School of Medicine, including the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health, and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.