Engineering for Social Change

Member helps develop a computational screening system for detecting autism early in children

7 May 2008

Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan’s engineering interest emerged in a high school computer class. But this member’s calling came after a friend lamented the dearth of services for his autistic child.

Visiting a local school for developmentally disabled children in Chennai, India, where he lives and works, Veeraraghavan saw children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and other disorders thrown into class together. Their differing needs made proper therapy impossible.

“India doesn’t have a dedicated program for identifying and treating autism, so these children are not given the opportunity to learn and grow,” he says.

Over the next three years, Veeraraghavan and a group of medical professionals, led by physician Karthik Srinivasan, developed an automated computational screening system for detecting possible autism in children as young as 18 months.

PROGRAMMED SCREENING The software, known as the Automated Screening System for Developmental Disorders, involves a 30-minute procedure that evaluates the child’s fine and gross motor, social, and language skills through 48 questions aimed at the primary caretaker, and includes artificial-intelligence gaming systems for the child. The screening system assigns each question or task a different numerical value that, when computed, add up to a score that could suggest symptoms of autism. If that happens, the results are automatically sent to Srinivasan’s team, which contacts the parents for more professional and ongoing evaluations. Subsequently, the gaming system could be used to help autistic children improve eye contact and verbal and nonverbal communication.

The system grew out of a research group the team founded called Brahmam (Hindu for “knowledge”) to develop technology to improve the lives of disabled children, motivate students toward engineering careers, and help underprivileged women and children learn new skill sets and set up businesses. The program has also raised funds to provide free education for autistic and impoverished children, rescuing some from child labor.

Veeraraghavan’s efforts have earned him the 2007 IEEE’s Regional Activities Board GOLD Achievement Award and the Region 10 GOLD Award, not to mention lecture invitations from institutions around the world. That he is only 24 and has managed this program on four hours of sleep a night while working full time as a systems engineer at the Tata Consultancy Service, a global IT services firm, is testament to his fervor.

“When I see a smile on the faces of the autistic children and parents—that’s what keeps me motivated,” he says.

ACTIVE IN IEEE Veeraraghavan graduated in 2005 from Anna University, in Chennai, with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering. He has been involved in IEEE since his university days, holding several positions including chair of the IEEE Madras (India) Section’s GOLD committee.

“IEEE helped me identify a mentor and expand my horizons and connection with other engineers,” he says. “The publications and conferences keep me updated with the latest industry happenings and technology.” The organization also supports his desire to apply engineering to tackle social problems.

Autistic children benefit from early detection and treatment. But in India, early intervention is still difficult. It can take as long as two years for parents to find a doctor able to diagnose the severity of the disorder and recommend treatment. By then, they have often run out of money and patience. Treatment in rural areas is further hindered by superstitions, a plethora of regional languages, and poverty. Monthly treatments for autistic children run between US $400 to $500, compared to a farmer’s income of $10.

Jaya Krishnaswamy—director of the Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children, which played a key role in field-testing the tool—told The Hindu newspaper in an interview, “Even a lay parent using the software can now be reassured that the child is attaining the development milestones.”

FREE FOR SCHOOLS The Brahmam team is now distributing the screening software free to schools across the state of Tamilnadu, in southern India, enabling teachers to test children suspected of developmental delays and refer them to medical staff. Also in the works are a multilingual version of the screener, an early-detection system for HIV-positive people, and a Web site that would classify types of disabilities.

Meanwhile, Veeraraghavan will begin a master’s program next fall in electrical engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. But it’s unlikely to be his only focus.

“This experience has motivated me to take up more social projects that improve living conditions in a more direct way,” he says.

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