How can Wearable Technology Contribute to Understanding Social Behaviour in Adolescents with Autism?

How can Wearable Technology Contribute to Understanding Social Behaviour in Adolescents with Autism?

In the latest instalment of Grand Challenges’ spotlight on Adolescent Lives, Siobhan Morris learns more about Dr Jamie Ward and Professor Antonia Hamilton’s project exploring how wearable technology can contribute to improving understanding of social behaviour in autistic adolescents.

Autism, or autism spectrum condition, refers to a range of developmental conditions that are characterised by difficulties with social interaction. People with autism can struggle with non-verbal communication, including the use of gaze, imitation, and other social cues. This can create a barrier to social engagement. Dr Jamie Ward (previously UCL Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, now Lecturer in Machine Learning at Goldsmiths) and Professor Antonia Hamilton’s (Professor of Social Neuroscience, UCL) project, ‘Expanding the social self through theatre in adolescents with autism’, therefore aimed to explore new ways of using wearable technology to help understand social behaviour in adolescents with autism.

The project centred around the work of Flute Theatre, a theatre company that has developed a means of bringing autistic children into the theatre and onto the stage. Flute’s approach is to help autistic children learn how to synchronise and engage socially through a series of theatrical games. Children who have profound difficulties with communication and social behaviour are encouraged to stand up and perform alongside a troupe of actors — all in front of a live audience. As Dr Ward remarks: ‘The effect of the work on the children’s behaviour is remarkable, and parents and carers often report on having witnessed their child interacting in ways they never before thought possible. But, as scientists, we do not fully understand the mechanisms at play during these unique social interactions between actors and children.’

Therefore, during a week of performances in 2018 at the Bridge Theatre in London, the project team studied these interactions in detail using wrist-worn movement sensors. The aim was to see if patterns of connection, or synchrony, could be found between the participants and how these related to moments in the play. Crucially, the team sought to discover if this technology could be used as a way of gauging a child’s engagement with others, and might it be used, for example, in the classroom, or during therapy sessions.


Significantly, the project’s findings demonstrated that data from wearable movement sensors can indeed be used to study interpersonal behaviour and synchrony in studies involving autistic children. When people work together, or engage with one another, they move in similar ways. Crucially, the project discovered that some of the children moved with the adults in unexpected ways. In one instance, for example, a child did not appear to be particularly interested in the performance and did not seem to be watching the adults; but when his movement data was analysed, the team discovered that he was gently moving in perfect synchrony with the others. He was engaged, just not in an obvious way.

The findings, however, were only possible due to the inter-disciplinary nature of the work. As Dr Ward notes: “This project simply could not have happened without intense cross-disciplinary interaction. The work required a strong understanding of autism research and clinical practice, knowledge of behavioural and interpersonal synchrony (through psychology and neuroscience), practical experience of wearable sensing and machine learning (through computing and engineering), and lastly, but importantly, a great connection to theatre and theatre practice. Having worked as both an engineer and an actor, and then being based at Professor Antonia Hamilton’s lab for Social Neuroscience, this overlap of fields was a fantastic opportunity for me personally. Generally, cross-disciplinary research is difficult, firstly in finding the right people to talk to, and then because of a lack of common language leading to difficulties in agreeing common objectives. Facilitators like Gregory Thompson (UCL Entrepreneur in Residence) really helped us to make the right connections, upon which the grant from Grand Challenges allowed us to explore those collaborations without the constraints of having to specify in advance exactly what it was we would achieve. This freedom led to a more creative, and ultimately fruitful, collaboration.”

The project’s findings have recently been published in ISWC (Proceedings of the ACM International Symposium on Wearable Computing) and the team are also currently compiling a journal article aimed at the autism research community. The team also have several grant applications in the pipeline related to this work to enable this seed project to act as a catalyst for further studies.

In addition, following the project’s success, a two-day event will take place in May at the Bloomsbury Theatre, where Flute will again team up again with Professor Hamilton, Dr Ward, and other scientists at UCL and Goldsmiths, to explore what goes on in the brain of an actor — and the audience — during performance. The piece, entitled ‘Deconstructing The Dream’, will be a ticketed event, open to the public and should be a lot of fun (as well as provide valuable data for research!). More details will be announced shortly.