I’m proud to be a member of Mensa and, like all Mensans, a stakeholder in the Mensa Foundation, because it positively impacts the greater community in so many ways, particularly in how it encourages members to use their talents for the greater good.
In 2013, the Foundation honored me with the Intellectual Benefits to Society Award. I was recognized for developing an interactive application that helps improve communication skills in children with autism or social thinking deficits. The recognition was not only encouraging but provided some much needed credibility to further the project.
The company we formed around our efforts, iTherapy (co-owned by another speech pathologist, Lois Jean Brady), used the provisional patent that won the Intellectual Benefits to Society Award as an outline for our app, InnerVoice. The award helped demonstrate to our business partner, MotionPortrait, Inc., that we had sound concepts on which to base our designs. It also helped us win a prestigious grant, the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovative Research Grant. As part of the grant, we were flown to Washington, D.C., where we attended a startup “bootcamp,” during which we were told that iTherapy was among the top 1 percent of applicants selected for the program.
We successfully completed our study and have just recently released the designs that we researched during the grant. This technology allows people to take a photograph of a face — human, line-drawn, cartoon, etc. — and assign facial expressions and emotional speech to the photograph. For therapeutic use, it’s a form of video self-modeling, which likely stimulates the mirror neuron system of the brain. Mirror neurons help us imitate what we see. Think of it this way: It often helps to see someone use a pogo stick before trying it. You watch, for example, where to put your feet and where to hold on with your hands.
Video modeling is an evidence-based instructional intervention for people on the autism spectrum. Interestingly, video modeling also seems to be an excellent learning tool for neurotypical people as well. YouTube has helped millions of people learn complicated physical skills (skiing, jiujitsu), difficult academic subjects (descriptive statistics, calculus) and other complex topics through video tutorials or video modeling.
Many people master a variety of skills by uploading videos of themselves progressively learning. Think of a golf swing. You can watch videos of your good swings that you can use again on the greens or view clips of your poor swings that you’ll avoid in the future.
In short, watching yourself can help you improve a skill. That’s why dancers, drummers, boxers and many other practitioners work in front of a mirror.
For nonverbal people, they may not yet be able to produce speech volitionally, so they can’t easily practice in front of a mirror or use video modeling to learn speech. A person has to possess the capacity to demonstrate a skill in order to be recorded on video. Our app, however, can model speech being produced by a nonverbal person who may or may not produce intelligible speech. As a learning tool, think of it as your mirror reflection teaching you how to speak the words of a new language. Your reflection says, “Bonjour,” and you reply, “Bonjour.” Your brain sees a model, which helps you learn to imitate and produce the physical movements.
Similarly, InnerVoice can model how to produce facial expressions for three basic emotions: anger, happiness and sadness. InnerVoice also models speech traits associated with these emotions using word emphasis, speech rate and pitch. The combination of these two technologies — facial recognition and synthesized speech — can help visually demonstrate and auditorily convey nonverbal emotional communication through facial expressions and speech.
These aspects of social communication are so crucial for people with autism because they can be difficult to model without technological tools. Another well-known speech-language pathologist, Michelle Garcia Winner, calls this type of social communication part of the “hidden curriculum,” or a set of social communication skills that people are expected to learn by watching and imitating others’ behavior. InnerVoice allows therapists, parents, teachers and even students to use video self-modeling in conjunction with other social communication interventions.
Indeed, this application will be intellectually beneficial to society. And I’m thankful to the Mensa Foundation for helping make it happen.