Provo • Heidi Kershaw was sitting in on a therapy session with her 7-year-old son, who has autism, when she noticed he kept getting distracted from the therapy exercises. His eyes were glued to the corner of the room, where Mickey Mouse was on the TV.
If only there were an image of Mickey Mouse on her face, the mom told the therapist, she would finally be able to establish eye contact with her son.
Kershaw, who is the senior vice president of operations at the Entertainment Industry Foundation in Los Angeles, kept the thought with her and came up with an idea: a pair of glasses that stream digital content on the lenses, allowing parents or therapists to keep eye contact with nonverbal children with autism.
After getting turned down by engineering firms who told her the glasses would cost about $1 million to design and develop, Kershaw pitched the idea to the Brigham Young University Engineering Capstone program, in which senior students undergo a two-semester project related to mechanical, manufacturing, electric or computer engineering.
A team of six students — three mechanical engineers and three electrical engineers — took on the project and developed two prototypes of glasses.
The glasses design chosen by Kershaw, who sponsored the project, consists of two LCD screens, two sheets of teleprompter glass and a speaker, according to a Wednesday press release.
The glasses, which bear a resemblance to virtual reality headsets, are connected to a control box that allows the user to control the opacity. The lower the opacity, the more clearly the user’s eyes are visible to the child.
In theory, the glasses would allow a therapist to stream an animation in order to catch the child’s attention, at which point they could lower the opacity, helping the child establish eye contact.
“There are a lot of studies that suggest nonverbal children with autism will not start their speech until they are able to make eye contact,” BYU adjunct professor Darrell Goff, who coached the capstone engineering project, said in an interview Monday. “And so the glasses are designed to help those nonverbal children to be able to engage eye contact, and then that becomes the foundation for them to start their speech and social development.”
Since the glasses are considered a medical device, they would be regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration and need to undergo testing with controlled groups and clinical trials with licensed therapists, according to Goff.
But, Goff added, the hope is that repeating the process with nonverbal children with autism would help them “become more and more comfortable, because new neural pathways will form.”
“And then that gives them the skills and the attention [span] to be able to continue on in their development,” he said. “And so that eye contact is absolutely crucial. There’s a number of studies that confirm that that’s just a crucial part of the [child’s] development.”
“From the outset, we could feel the importance and potential life-changing impact these glasses could have on the lives of children with autism and their families,” BYU student Matt Simmons, who worked on the project, said in the press release. “Our hope is that therapists who work with children with autism will use these glasses to create that positive experience and help these wonderful children continue to develop.”
The other BYU students involved in the project were Jayden Olsen, Mouri Zakir, Seth Hamson, Jeffrey Pyne and Blaine Oldham.