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Connection Stories

People on the Autism Spectrum Need Smarter Tools to Connect

April 11, 2022

How Cox is working to solve the struggle some experience when connecting virtually

By Dr. Michelle Dean, Associate Professor of Special Education at California State University 

For most Americans, video chatting has become a way of life since the beginning of the pandemic more than two years ago. We use it for work, school and to stay connected socially, even with eased social distancing regulation and declining cases of COVID-19 and its variants nationwide. 

But for many people on the autism spectrum, having genuine connection via video chat can be difficult, if not impossible.

Related to brain development, autism – causing social interaction and communication challenges. For people on the spectrum who have a hard time reading cues and understanding facial expressions and other people’s emotions, those issues can be amplified when there’s a screen between them and the other party. 

Helping individuals on the spectrum connect

In support of Autism Awareness Month, Cox Communications has unveiled Project Convey to increase meaningful connection for individuals on the autism spectrum. I was honored to consult for Convey by Cox, which is a video chat prototype tool that helps individuals with autism understand visual and vocal cues of the person on the other side of the screen. Research for this tool also included focus groups facilitated with people with autism. This is truly a tool for people with autism created with input from people with autism.

The technology provides visual closed captions that connect – which is what Cox is all about – strengthening human connection for everyone, including differently abled individuals. As video chat continues to grow in popularity, Cox wants to help people with autism improve communications via the channel. 

You might be surprised to know one in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it’s not a condition people outgrow.

Understanding through emojis

Convey by Cox uses speech and facial recognition to analyze facial expressions, words and tone of voice to interpret the meaning and translate that into a single emoji. Doing so helps individuals on the spectrum easily understand the other person behind the screen and respond accordingly. The emojis will use color and motion to signal and reinforce meaning. 

Research reveals emojis are preferred by people with autism, which is the reason Convey by Cox uses them as a tool they already understand to help them break down communication barriers to connect with others. 

An interesting aside – there are more than 3,304 emojis worldwide, with new ones coming out every year.

Individuals on the spectrum have unique patterns of behavior and severity level, meaning some individuals on the spectrum need more support than others. Some take words literally, so slang and idioms can be confusing. For example, if you were to say, “the cat’s out of the bag,” many on the spectrum think a cat is coming out of a bag rather than giving away a secret. 

Emojis help clarify words, facial expressions and gestures so the person on the other end of a video is better understood by someone on the spectrum. Communication becomes clearer, which can help calm anxieties for those with autism. Convey by Cox enables people with autism to have stronger connections with those they interact with – even when they are apart.

Improving video chat connections

Cox is committed to making Convey’s research available to everyone. So, perhaps one day, every video chat platform will implement this technology to better include and support people of varying abilities. Everyone deserves genuine human connection.

Learn more about the families that have strengthened their connections using the Project Convey video chat tool.
Note: Dr. Dean completed her Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowship at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and was a consultant for the Netflix series Atypical.

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