READING, Pa. — Children with autism tend to have difficulty picking up on non-verbal cues in conversations with others. Kaylee Grindrod wants to use technology to help them learn to read facial expressions and consequently improve their communication skills.
“I’ve always loved children and helping out in any way I can,” said the 2018 Penn State Berks graduate and Schreyer Honors Scholar. “I’m a firm believer in that if you give someone the tools to empower themselves that they’ll be able to really accomplish a lot.”
Grindrod completed two internships at Aaron’s Acres, a nonprofit organization in Lancaster County that gives summer camp experiences to children with disabilities. The psychology major worked mostly with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and was inspired to learn more when she returned to the Penn State Berks campus in the fall.
“The more that I was looking into the literature, I saw that there was a need for social emotional recognition apps for children with ASD,” Grindrod said.
For her honors thesis, Grindrod analyzed three such apps — “Mission, Rescue, Kloog,” “ABA Dr. Omnibus,” and “Autism Emotions & Feeling Card.” With the help of then-engineering student Nathan Smith, a 2017 Penn State graduate, she designed a fourth app, “Outer Space,” which prompts users to match similar expressions on two different people or match a facial expression with a specific emotion.
Grindrod interviewed professionals in the field and parents of children with ASD and discovered that the apps taught children how to recognize different facial expressions and identify what they mean, but that existing apps didn’t do a great job of generalizing to real-life behaviors.
“There was also not a lot of context,” she said, “so if I give a situation or during a conversation when you’re talking, your nonverbals, the way they coincide with what you’re saying, children with autism tend to have a hard time identifying it.”
Grindrod, who presented similar work on a separate project at the Eastern Psychological Association conference in Boston in March 2017, also saw that a limited number of these developmental apps in the marketplace and that most of them had low user ratings. She would like to see more options, which was one of the reasons she created her own app.
“I definitely think there is a desire,” she said. “Tablets are being used more and more frequently within treatment but also at home for children with ASD.”
Grindrod, who graduated with honors in May, served as family relations executive for Berks Benefitting Thon and was a captain for the campus’ orientation program. She is taking a gap year, but eventually plans to obtain a doctorate in psychology or in clinical psychology. She wants to get involved in the field of play therapy and continue to advocate for children with ASD and other disabilities.
“Children with disabilities are able to do so much and they’re very, very similar to their peers,” Grindrod said. “But you might just have to treat them a little differently or give them a little bit of assistance. And when you do, they’re able to really excel.
“For me, that’s where my passion came. I felt like I was able to help empower them.”