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Autism Research Steps Out of the Lab

NE Alumni look to Professor Matthew Goodwin for new methodologies in treating their son.

Matthew Dandurand loved the Red Sox. He was a talented online gamer, and gave his family much joy during his brief 16 years of life. But Asperger’s Syndrome made communication difficult for Matthew, known affectionately as “Matty-O,” and he struggled to navigate the complex interactions required by human relationships.

His father, Ken Dandurand, PAH’78, and mother, Patty, PT’80, saw how hard socialization was for their son. Fortunately, the Dandurands found potential solutions for others like him in the research of Northeastern professor Matthew Goodwin.

Goodwin, an experimental psychologist on the faculties of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the College of Computer and Information Science, got involved in autism spectrum dis­order (ASD) research in children in the mid-1990s, when public awareness of the condition was rising. At the time, the research literature did not reflect his own clinical observations.

“Most of the science was either phenomenological armchair conjecture or purely lab experimentation—nothing in between,” Goodwin says.

One reason the science didn’t match up, he hypothesized, is that more severely affected people with ASD don’t react well to the laboratory environment. “This got me thinking about using wearable biosensors to study kids outside the lab,” Goodwin says.

These sensor technologies can dis­creetly measure physical activity, heart rate, and sweating, potentially helping caregivers determine which situations cause negative behavior and sending alerts for support before a tantrum or meltdown.

Goodwin’s focus made sense to the Dandurands, who created the Matthew Dandurand Autism Research Fund—aka the Matty-O Fund —to support Goodwin’s work and honor their son, who died of un­related causes.

“It’s important to us to help people who, like our son, face challenges com­municating with the world,” says Ken. The Dandurands intend to raise money for the fund in an ongoing manner.

Goodwin wants to use data he is gathering with sensor technology to learn which kinds of autism are suitable for which interventions, to fill a big void in the ASD field. “We’re building data-collection systems in kids’ homes and turning them and their parents into citizen-scientists,” he says.

To add to his investigations, Goodwin introduced some design thinking to the Dandurands, piquing their interest with what the three now call an “Un-hack­athon.” Their idea: Bring the ASD com­munity together in teams of clinicians, researchers, parents, and even kids with ASD for a brainstorming session at Northeastern.

During a two-day span, groups will explore social and emotional challenges, try out technologies, and conduct thought experiments that may benefit those with ASD. Before the first event, scheduled for 2017, Goodwin will initially hold training sessions to identify kids who embrace the process.

Says Goodwin, “Why not go straight to the people most affected by ASD for fresh insights and ideas? We hope to come up with new strategies my lab and others can explore.”