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Google Glass for autism: AP story is shortsighted on evidence


3 Star


Our Review Summary

Google Glass New YorkThis is a brief “teaser” story that delivers more promise than details about the use of a Google Glass application that can help children with autism learn how to assess emotions reflected in people’s faces.

While the story admits that these are very early results, the fact they are framed in such positive terms is a bit disconcerting and might be setting up false hope for families with children on the autism spectrum.

Even though autism advocates are “excited that researchers are developing technologies to help” these children, it might be worth waiting until there are more details of the effectiveness of the wearable technology before announcing it with such enthusiasm to the general public.


Why This Matters

The CDC estimates that about “one in 68 American children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder.” Technology that helps these kids read emotions holds promise as a way to help enhance their abilities to interact socially, which is a large hurdle for many. However, these methods need to be proven safe and effective before claims of benefit are made.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There is no discussion of costs, but presumably this could be substantial.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

There is no quantification of benefits. This means we must rely on anecdotes and quotes to assess benefits, such as the statement “participating children have shown gains in their face-reading abilities and family feedback has been encouraging.” Whether that will translate into supportable, reliable data is unknown for now.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There are no harms mentioned. It’s quite feasible there could be harms in replacing a learning activity that typically involves humans into one dominated by technology, and this should have been addressed.

When we read through the (unpublished) study, we did notice drawbacks, such as this: “The biggest complaint about the device was that it became uncomfortably warm after being used for more than about 20 minutes.”

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

Things are still very preliminary and from this story, we don’t really get any inkling of what the evidence even looks like, nor even how the researchers propose to measure their outcomes to determine benefits. This may be a case where the news reporting should have waited until more definitive outcomes were available.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There is no blatant disease mongering here.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


An independent source thankfully provides some counter-balance to the mostly glowing assumptions that this technology will work wonders: “Anything that can help this population is very welcome and very important, but even the best technology will never be enough because we are dealing with a population with often very, very profound needs,” said Jill Escher, president of Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area.

We didn’t detect any conflicts of interest in the unpublished paper on this research effort, though the story would have been more informative if it had mentioned who was funding the study, and if there is funding for more research.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


There is the mention of alternatives (ie: currently, many autistic children learn to read facial expressions by working with therapists who use flashcards with faces expressing different emotions), but we don’t have any sense of how those alternatives compare to the Google Glass device, nor how well current methods work or are evaluated, and how this method will differ.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


This is borderline Satisfactory. We learn that Google “stopped producing the headset last year after it failed to gain traction.” The story does mention that “if the study shows positive results, the technology could become commercially available within a couple years” but we’re not told what that prediction is based upon.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


We got the sense that this is a new use for a previously developed technology, so this use is probably appropriately described as novel.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


We could not locate a news release for this story, but since the story quotes an independent source, we can be reasonably certain that it didn’t rely excessively on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory

Comments (1)

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Bob Ericson

June 28, 2016 at 2:15 pm

nice article