Most people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders suffer from severe forms of the disability, and find it difficult to perform unfamiliar tasks for undefined periods of time, according to Matthew Goodwin, an assistant professor of health informatics at Northeastern University.
Goodwin — who joined the Northeastern faculty in the fall with joint appointments in the College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences — has studied autism for more than a decade. He says severely affected patients are “the most prevalent in the population, but they’re the ones we understand the least, and the ones we really need to help the most.”
Recognizing that results from studying higher-functioning individuals with autism may not apply to individuals with more severe cases of the disability, Goodwin came up with a novel idea: “Instead of bringing people into the lab, why don’t we consider taking the lab to people?”
To put this idea into practice, Goodwin draws on two forms of computer science. The first, called “ubiquitous computing,” tracks a person’s natural behavior in his home using embedded sensory devices such as cameras or microphones. The second approach, dubbed “wearable computing,” measures physical activity and physiological reactivity using embedded sensors on shoes, clothing and wristbands.
Goodwin notes the effectiveness of combining each approach: “We can have built environments where we know something about overt human behavior, and then with wearable devices we can say something about the internal state of the individual.”
Goodwin began testing this tactic as a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, where he later became a research scientist and forged a collaboration with five top-tier research institutions. The partnership culminated in a five-year National Science Foundation Expeditions in Computing grant to develop novel personal health technologies.
Joining Northeastern, Goodwin says, will help him take this work to the next level through interdisciplinary collaborations with faculty members in both the computer and health sciences to address several of the nation’s current health-care challenges.
“Northeastern is willing to be innovative and interdisciplinary,” he explains. “Here, the focus is on applying research, putting it out into the world, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and bringing successes to the masses. This applied focus could really impact public health.”