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.”