Google Glass can help autistic children understand facial expressions, new study says

Google Glass can help children with autism understand facial expressions and social cues, a new study says.

Children with the developmental disorder often have trouble holding eye contact and interpreting basic emotions, which can make it difficult to socialize.  

But researchers said wearing the so-called ‘smart glasses’, which include a screen and a speaker, helped kids better understand and identify the emotions on people’s faces.

In some cases, their autism symptoms were even slightly reduced. 

The team, from Stanford University in California, says its findings show that therapy via Google Glass is less expensive and easier to access, which could help improve wait-lists for behavioral therapists. 

A new study from Stanford University found that Google Glass children helps kids with autism better understand facial expressions, which could improve their social behavior. Pictured: Alex Cullenbine, nine, who participated in Stanford’s pilot study last year

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder in which sufferers have a hard time communicating and with behavior. 

It encompasses several conditions – including autism, Asperger’s syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder – and symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Children are usually diagnosed by age two after they exhibit signs such as reduced eye contact, not responding to their name and performing repetitive movements.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 59 children has ASD.    

The intervention, named Superpower Glass by Stanford researchers, has autistic children wear Google Glass a few times a week.

The wearable computer glasses are paired with a smartphone and feature a camera that records the user’s point of view.

Google Glass also has a small screen above the right eye and a speaker, which gives users visual and audio information.

For the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, the team looked at 71 children between ages six and 12 who had been diagnosed with ASD.    

Researchers programmed the app with Google Glass to teach participants about facial expressions with real-time cues.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with autism have trouble with social, emotional and communication skills that usually develop before the age of three and last throughout a person’s life. 

Specific signs of autism include: 

  • Reactions to smell, taste, look, feel or sound are unusual
  • Difficulty adapting to changes in routine
  • Unable to repeat or echo what is said to them
  • Difficulty expressing desires using words or motions
  • Unable to discuss their own feelings or other people’s
  • Difficulty with acts of affection like hugging
  • Prefer to be alone and avoid eye contact
  • Difficulty relating to other people
  • Unable to point at objects or look at objects when others point to them

First, when a face is detected by the glasses’ camera, an emoji appears in the display corresponding with the emotion.

Then an audio cue is given that classifies the emotion as one of eight: happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, disgust, ‘meh’ and neutral.

Then there are three games that parents can play with their child. 

The first is the ‘capture the smile’ game, in which the child is given clues to elicit a certain emotion, such as telling a joke for the happy emotion.   

In ‘guess my emotion’ game, parents have the child guess which of the eight emotions they’re acting out.

Then there’s ‘free play’ in which the child is given audio and visual cues for the emotions of any individual who is interacting with them.

The researchers say these games help autistic children learn to identify and understand different emotions.

Forty children used the device for 20-minute sessions four times a week for a total of six weeks and the rest were controls. 

After the study periods, researchers saw improvements of scores in SRS-II, which is a questionnaire completed by parents of their autistic children’s social skills, meaning autism symptoms improved.

There were also improvements in the Emotion Guessing Game, which had children identify emotions that were being expressed by a live human actor. 

The authors say the average wait time for a specialist in the US is currently 18 months and that early autism therapy is effective, but can cost between $40,000 and $60,000 per child per year. 

Co-author Dr Dennis Wall, an associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Stanford University, told MD Magazine that the findings provide hope that smart glasses could be standard treatment in autism care.

‘We certainly think that there is great purpose and potential to be used while children are waiting for access to the current standards of therapy that are administered today,’ Dr Wall said.  

‘We hope to do a study on younger children who are waiting for care and have a lower baseline levels of emotion recognition and social acuity.’