MAS.771 | Spring 2011 | Graduate

Autism Theory and Technology


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session


This course will lay a foundation in autism theory and autism technology that significantly leverages and expands MIT’s ability to pioneer new technology for helping under-served populations. Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) encompass a broad set of conditions applying to a growing number of people worldwide, which the CDC identified in 2009 as involving the diagnosis of 1 in 100 children by age 8 in the USA. A person receives a diagnosis of ASD when they have a combination of atypical responses in categories relating to social interaction, communication, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors.

Many people on the autism spectrum face significant challenges with daily living, relationship building and maintenance, emotion awareness and regulation, and both verbal and nonverbal communication. Many also have problems with motor coordination and fine motor control to produce speech or certain sequences of movements, and some have a mysterious condition where their ability to move completely disappears and returns. Many also have problems with sensory regulation, sleep, attention, and executive function abilities. Students who take this class will learn about all of these challenges, many of which also affect people who do not have an autism diagnosis. Students will receive a state-of-the-art overview of technologies being developed to address such challenges.

This class will involve presentations from experts in autism and in autism technologies, and provide opportunities to interact with individuals on the autism spectrum, including those who support them. The course will also explore the converging challenges and goals of autism research and new technologies - including networked, wearable, and robotic - that have increasingly human-like social, emotional, and communication skills. We will advance ways technology can be used for helping both researchers and people on the autism spectrum to gain greater understanding of the condition through systematic measurement of affective, physiological, and behavior data. We will also work together to develop technologies that increase opportunities for communication and expression. Our goals are to enable people with disabilities to gain the tools and help they need, while also helping researchers, families, and their support network to develop a better understanding of what autism is.

All students will be expected to carry out a project in a team or solo.


Classroom participation 25%
Ten assignments (reading/response) 30%
Project and presentation 45%

Homework handed in late will be deducted points as follows: 1 point the first time you are late; 2 points the second time; N points the Nth time.

With the exception of the first day of class, readings and assignments are due 24 hours before class meets.

All students are expected to attend all classes and all project presentations. Please contact one of the professors in advance if you will have to miss class. Unexcused absence will affect your class participation grade.

The final project presentations are especially important for everyone to attend; please do not plan to leave for summer until after the last day of class.


1 Introduction to autism and autism technology - Overview of autism spectrum disorders. Discussion of opportunities we see with our research/technology, e.g., affective computing, social robotics, relational machines, commonsense computing, to offer communication and learning opportunities to individuals with autism spectrum disorder, to their families and to teachers/clinicians/researchers. What can we learn from individuals, many of whom prefer to be called “autistic” and from strategies they have devised to adapt to the challenges they face with autism?    
2 Autism Technologies Gregory Abowd, Rob Morris and Ehsan Hoque  
3 Understanding & Treating Problem Behavior in ASD Ted Carr  
4 Biomedical & Environmental Factors Martha Herbert  
5 Personal Perspective & Autistic Intelligence Stephen Shore Project proposal (draft) due
6 Project Idea Discussions   Project proposal (final) due
7 Personal Perspective, and Stress, Arousal, Anxiety & Physiological Recording Nomi Kaim, and Matthew Goodwin  
8 Sensory Issues Jane Koomar and Elliot Hedman  
9 Project Progress Presentations   Project progress presentations
10 Alternative & Augmentative Communication Technologies, and Repetitive Behavior Amanda Baggs, and Matthew Goodwin  
11 Early Diagnosis Charles Nelson  
12 Last day of class - Final Project Presentations   Presentations on final projects
13 Project feedback/wrap-up/reflect and discuss, ASD controversies   Project write-up/webpages due