By Kevin Howell

Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability. More and more families are affected by the disorder, as its prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percent annually since 2002.

One percent of the world population has autism, including 3.5 million in the U.S., according to the CDC.

So what is autism?

Also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), autism refers to a group of complex disorders of brain development. The disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors.

Children with autism have varying communication troubles, such as failing to respond to their names and avoiding eye contact, as well as not understanding non-verbal gestures and tone of voice.

While educational and family services are the most common method for helping children with autism, technology is starting to play a larger role in the development of autistic children. Here are a couple of examples of how engineers are helping children with the disorder.


Students at Purdue University along with the university’s EPICS program created an iPad app to help improve the lives of non-verbal children affected by autism.

Using methods that promote natural language development, the SPEAKall! app is a picture exchange system that allows children to communicate their needs and wants. The app allows users to put together words, and a verbal model will speak the words back to them.

The app has helped children increase their speech-related skills and functional communication.


As children with autism struggle to be socially appropriate and connected, one company has found a way to motivate them socially—through avatars.

SiLAS (Socially Interactive Learning Avatar Software) is software created by Small Factory Productions that allows children with autism to create an avatar and interact with others virtually through real-time social animation. Children control their avatar through a video game controller and microphone headset.

The software allows the children to display and identify emotions and develop social skills such as topic collaboration, topic closure, and topic generation. The program helps autistic children decrease social anxiety by watching their animated interaction.

Autism has become more prevalent, and with advancements in technology, there are more tools to help those with the disorder develop and improve socially. Engineers continue to be at the forefront of innovations that not only move society forward but also help those with developmental disorders such as autism.

For Information about Autism Support Groups for Parents visit  and


Solving problems for under-served communities and marginalized people is a core principle of humanitarian engineering. EPICS in IEEE helps further these efforts by providing grants for community service-related projects. Find out more about the program here.