This is an archived course. A more recent version may be available at


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Course Description

Many individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder face tremendous challenges interpreting and responding to socio-affective cues such as tone of voice or facial expression in real-time. When people fail to perceive, understand and act upon social-emotional information, then they are hindered in their ability to interact. For example, deciding when to approach someone, when to interrupt, or when to wind down an interaction all depend upon knowing how to read and respond appropriately to human social-emotional cues. Inability to read and respond to such cues also affects ability to learn since social-emotional cues are often used to guide attention, reduce complexity, and provide positive or negative feedback. Difficulties in these areas can also lead to problems in the development of relationships, misunderstandings in communication, and overall increases in frustration. Our research aims to change the nature of technology so that it can help people communicate social-emotional information, and develop their own skills, as well as augment their existing skills. We are especially interested in technologies that can help individuals with social interactions, communication, emotion regulation, and the development of independent and inter-dependent living skills. The latter may also include technologies for helping with movement disorders, sensory sensitivities, and other challenges they face. In developing such technologies, we have a lot to learn from people on the autism spectrum, from progress they have made, and from the friends, families, and staff who work with them developing successful strategies for coping with the dynamic interactive challenges of the real world.

This course will lay a foundation in autism theory and autism technology that significantly leverages and expands the Media Lab's ability to pioneer new technology. Students will not only develop new technologies, but also understand, help, and learn from people with autism, a fast-growing group that the CDC identified in the year 2005 as involving an estimated 1 in 150 school-age children ages 6-21. Students will gain an understanding of the basic challenges faced by people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, together with their families and caregivers, and an understanding of the fundamental theories that inform therapies and technologies for improving the autistic experience. The course will also explore the converging challenges and goals of autism research and the development of technologies with people sense. We will advance ways technology can be used for early detection and intervention in autism. We will enable new technologies for people diagnosed with autism to use to better communicate, and to help them achieve their desired level of independent and inter-dependent living skills. Throughout the course, we will consider ways technology can help inform autism research and improve opportunities for people diagnosed with autism.

Policies and Grading

Classroom participation 25%
Ten assignments (reading/response) 30%
Project and presentation (proposal draft due in Ses #5, final proposal due in Ses #6, presentations in Ses #12) 45%


All students are expected to attend all classes and all project presentations. Please contact one of the professors in advance if you will have to miss class. Unexcused absence will affect your grade. The final project presentations are especially important for everyone to attend; please do not plan to leave for summer until after the last day of class.

Autism Links

Study Puts Rate of Autism at 1 in 150 U.S. Children

Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge

Wisconsin Medical Society: Savant Profile Home Page