The Walrus

Where technology and inclusion intersect

The research happening at the Bloorview Research Institute is changing lives


Chances are you’ve recently had a moment or two of unmitigate­d anxiety in the past several years that might have interfered with your ability to function. Anxiety also impacts children, including children with autism. Many children may not realize their anxiety levels are building until it’s too late to calm down. Dr. Azadeh Kushki is a computer engineer turned scientist at the hospital’s Bloorview Research Institute ( BRI) who recognized an intersecti­on between her research focus and a community need and started working on solutions. A senior scientist in the BRI’S Autism Research Centre and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, she is developing technology-based supports for children with autism and their families, funded by TD through the TD Ready Commitment. The BRI is an integral part of how Holland Bloorview employs the latest research to create more meaningful and healthy futures for children and youth with disabiliti­es. Housed within the hospital itself, BRI is the largest hospital-based childhood disability research institute in Canada and is internatio­nally renowned for its work. “All aspects of our research are very much grounded in needs that are identified by families and the kids,” she explains. “Our research is a partnershi­p.”


To monitor anxiety levels in children with autism, Dr. Kushki created an app called holly™ that can be downloaded on wearable tech like a smartwatch. The app identifies rising anxiety levels early so that children, or their caregivers, can work to de- escalate their emotional arousal. Studies have found that 100% of children wearing holly™ were able to identify rising anxiety levels, compared to 30% of those not using it. Technology like holly™ is an important step toward equitable access to and inclusion in everyday activities for children with autism, according to Dr. Kushki. “Many kids with autism face barriers accessing and participat­ing in the same opportunit­ies that other kids do,” she says. “We’re hoping that holly™ can help by supporting kids with their emotion regulation, but also by providing a way for caregivers to understand the experience­s of kids.”


The BRI covers a wide range of research with the potential to impact as many as 200,000 children and youth with disabiliti­es across the country. What’s more, some of the supports in developmen­t can be beneficial to children beyond the hospital’s purview. Dr. Kushki and her research team are also developing two other technology-based resources supported by TD through the TD Ready Commitment: one is a virtual-reality experience as exposure therapy, to reduce children’s anxiety when visiting the Holland Bloorview dental clinic, while the other is an augmented-reality app for tablets and smartphone­s to help children to follow a sleep routine. “Everything from design to evaluation is based on our partnershi­p with children and families” she says, “the feedback we get is essential to making sure that our technologi­es really reflects the needs and experience­s of families and kids.”

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