Using Artificial Intelligence to Address Sound Sensitivity in Autism with Dr. Elina Birmingham

April 03, 2023

Dr. Elina Birmingham is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and the Director of the Autism in Education Lab (AEL) at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on supporting children, youth and adults on the autism spectrum. Her Sound Sensitivity Project uses artificial intelligence (AI) to address sound tolerance issues.

Q: Tell us about your educational and professional background? 

A: My background is in cognitive psychology, social neuroscience and clinical psychology. I completed my PhD at UBC in 2008 and undertook postdoctoral positions at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Simon Fraser University (SFU). My research has increasingly focused on applied approaches to support autistic individuals across their lifespans. 

Q: What inspired you to pursue research and work with those on the Autism spectrum?  

A: During my postdoctoral work at Caltech with Professor Ralph Adolphs, I became interested in practical applications for my research and focused on autism research. At SFU, I continued my research in the B.C. autism context, influenced by my previous mentor, Professor Grace Iarocci, who is committed to improving the quality of life for autistic individuals and their families. The training I received in her lab inspired my current program of research. 

Q: How did the Sound Sensitivity Project get established? 

A: My colleague Dr. Siamak Arzanpour and I met in 2016 and discovered our shared passion for improving the inclusion and quality of life of autistic children. We decided to focus on Decreased Sound Tolerance (DST), a common experience among autistic individuals where everyday sounds can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.

Through surveys and focus groups, we gained insights into the daily experiences of autistic individuals and found that while many cope by avoiding noisy environments or wearing earplugs, these strategies can limit their social interactions and exacerbate DST over time. To address this, we are developing a machine learning system that can intelligently detect aversive sounds and manage them in real time, allowing users to stay engaged in their surroundings without being overwhelmed by harmful noises. Our system is personalized to each user's needs and is currently being tested in a Virtual Reality setting with funding from the Kids Brain Health Network.

Q: What impact have you observed on this project? 

A: The most exciting part of the project is that from the outset we have been including the voices of autistic individuals and their families to better understand their needs and the gaps in the available supports for DST. This feedback has fundamentally informed our approach and is used in an agile way to create further improvements to our system. We have also recruited autistic individuals and caregivers to serve on our advisory panel and are in the process of hiring autistic adults to join our research team. This engagement with stakeholders throughout the research process is extremely important for ensuring that our research priorities are meeting the needs of the autism community. 

Q: What can teachers and community members do to address challenges for those on the autism spectrum in and out of the classroom?  

A: Teachers and community members can embrace the understanding that autistic individuals experience differences in how they perceive the world around them, but the extent to which these differences are disabling depends on the context they are in and the requirements to fit into a neurotypical world. An important concept is that of Double Empathy, wherein both members of a social interaction exchange need to take responsibility for empathizing with the other. Usually the onus is on the autistic individual to learn and adapt to neurotypical expectations.  If neurotypical individuals can make a similar effort to better understand the perspectives of their neurodivergent peers, this creates a more equitable situation and hopefully one that is much more inclusive of different ways of thinking and being.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?   

A: Please visit the Autism in Education Lab website and attend our upcoming local research conference, hosted by SFU and ACT-Autism Community Training, titled Sensory Features and Anxiety in Autism: Implications for families and practitioners. Registration information can be found here.