UCF App Helps Children with Autism, Connect, Feel

UCF App Helps Children with Autism, Connect, Feel

Winner of a prestigious new award for early-career faculty, Trey Vasquez uses simulated learning environments to teach children with autism how to interpret facial expressions.

A furrowed brow or folded arms signals “anger” to most people. For children on the autism spectrum, however, these non-verbal cues hold little or no meaning. Not being able to read subtle body language is a characteristic, to varying degrees, of the disorder that affects 1 in 68 American children — and one that often stands in the way of meaningful, in-depth communication.

But thanks to the research of Dr. Eleazar “Trey” Vasquez III, assistant professor in the Exceptional Education Program in the College of Education and Human Performance, children on the autism spectrum are getting help from technology he has helped develop.

A self-described “techie” who has spent his career focused on the needs of students with disabilities, Dr. Vasquez has developed, in collaboration with Darin Hughes, an app called the WUBeeS that has shown great promise in helping students on the autism spectrum read non-verbal cues and feel empathy.

“Students with autism have difficulty making connections and understanding different facial features,” says Vasquez. But this app seems to be making a huge impact. In initial tests, positive results have been seen in just five 20-minute game play sessions.

Vasquez developed the app with faculty in the Institute of Simulation and Training and Department of Computer Science and hopes to have it available for widespread use in the near future.  “One of the most exciting things about working on the app has been that it’s a joint effort with other faculty members and researchers,” he says. “It’s so important to talk outside of one’s discipline.”

Vasquez is also working alongside Gregory F. Welch, the Florida Hospital Endowed Chair in Healthcare and Simulation in UCF’s College of Nursing; Arjun Nagendran, Assistant Professor of Research at UCF’s Synthetic Reality Lab; and Charles Hughes, Pegasus Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, to compare student responses to simulated learning environments using robotic and 3D avatars and inter-actors. “We have found that children with autism will approach and initiate interaction more easily with avatars than they will ‘real’ humans,” Vasquez says.  “This has widespread use in improving the learning experience for K-12 students.”

Vasquez has also written dozens of journal articles and attracted more than $4.5 million in grants through the years from state and federal agencies, as well as from private foundations. In fact, UCF’s high ranking in the area of exceptional education is owed in great part to the contributions Vasquez has made to UCF since he joined the university in 2008. Wilfred D. Wienke, a UCF emeritus professor, says of Vasquez, “His daily productivity and energy serves as a strong example and role model for the future scholars we are preparing.”

Most recently, Vasquez was honored at the UCF’s Founders’ Day spring convocation with one of eight Reach for the Stars awards. Given for the first time this year, these prestigious awards recognize early-career professors who are producing research or creative activities of national impact. Worth $10,000 each and renewable for up to three years, they are precisely the kind of incentive that helps UCF attract and retain top scholars and teachers like Vasquez in an increasingly competitive market — and precisely the kind of initiative that private philanthropy gives the university the flexibility to pursue.