Just five years ago, Azadeh Kushki had never met anyone with autism. As an electrical engineering student earning a PhD at the University of Toronto, her focus was much more on theoretical work, and much less the practical applications of her valuable knowledge.

It wasn’t until the 33-year-old volunteered at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto that life took a very different direction. While she was completing a postdoctoral fellowship at McMaster University in Hamilton, Kushki signed up to supervise kids at the hospital’s playroom, where parents and guardians can safely leave their children to play while they book appointments or discuss treatment options with doctors. There, she met kids with autism for the first time, and began to understand some of the challenges their families face: children with high levels of anxiety, children who don’t pick up on social cues or follow social patterns and a sad lack of services to help. Kushki put two and two together.

“I realized that I could use a lot of these engineering skills I have to do something meaningful,” she says. She asked Tom Chau, the vice-president of research at Holland Bloorview, if he thought there was a place for her at the hospital to work on developing technologies that could help. He encouraged her to apply for funding, and within a short time she had moved from volunteer to postdoctoral fellow working in the Paediatric Rehabilitation Intelligent Systems Multidisciplinary (PRISM) lab. Just a few months ago, Kushki was hired on as a scientist at the hospital’s Autism Research Centre, where she will soon start developing the prototypes for the exciting technologies she first started dreaming of a few years ago.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, one in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder, and autism is far more common in boys than girls.

“There are very few services available for these kids,” Kushki says. “They get the diagnosis and that’s about it — there isn’t much that can be done. There are long wait lists for services. And often by the time they actually get to receiving these treatments and services, a lot of them are too old to benefit.  Technology can provide a way to make these services accessible to families.”

For example, the work that much-needed therapists do can be expensive and difficult to secure. But by developing applications that can be downloaded to an iPad that mimic the same types of exercises a child would do with a live therapist, Kushki hopes to make therapy accessible to all kids.

Similarly, Kushki and her team are creating wearable technology that she compares to Project Glass, more commonly known as Google Glasses. The piece she wants to create would easily be transported along with kids wherever they go, but would assist them with day-to-day social interactions. Because the patent is pending on this project, Kushki cannot share the details.

“She’s trained as an electrical engineer, working in wireless communications and signal processing,” says Chau, who worked with Kushki for two years. “But she’s really made the full transplantation into paediatric rehabilitation and important clinical issues. [With] that kind of pairing — someone with such a high level of technical skill, and you bring them into a clinical environment – really interesting and innovating things start happening. In the time that she’s been here, training in our lab, she has definitely shown that she’s full of creativity.”

Kushki says research shows that the earlier autistic kids can access therapy and services, the better chance they have of becoming active participants in society. Eventually, she wants to offer the highly intelligent kids with autism at Holland Bloorview the opportunity to have a hands-on role in developing technology that can improve their lives.

“I want to develop technologies that tap into that potential that is not being used right now,” Kushki says. “There’s so much potential — so much — that, unfortunately, because of a lack of services, this potential may not be realized right now. My ultimate dream is to have services accessible to every child with autism so that they can grow up to be whoever they want to be, and reach their full potential.”

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