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Autism and Culture Round-Up: Video Interviews, Robot Companions, and Videos You Have to See

One of the exciting aspects of living in an age where the majority of the population has video-capturing abilities on their phones is that moments of wonder, which used to live by word of mouth, can now be easily captured and shared with the world. In addition to looking at two stories that show technology’s ability to make companionship and job interviews more obtainable than ever, we will also look at two incredible videos that put serious smiles on our faces.

First up, as we frequently use this space to look at ways autism organizations are seeking to make the transition to adulthood easier and less challenging, a new development spearheaded by the Dan Marino Foundation and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies have developed new virtual reality software designed to prepare young adults with autism for job interviews. The Virtual Interactive Training Agent (ViTA DMF) is an interactive program that features different virtual individuals with three different personality settings: soft touch, neutral, and hostile.

The software immerses its users Ina variety of different interview environments, ranging from an office to the boardroom, where they do at least four practice sessions. It also possesses natural language capabilities, meaning that users can converse with the program, which asked questions and then responds to the answers given. Reports show that young adults with ASD face high rates of unemployment, up to 66 percent in some cases, so the hope is that the ViTA DMF will help bring those numbers down. The program is also remarkable for being one of the first applications of VR for those with autism, something that potentially holds great promise as a therapy tool.

Moving from VR to robotics, another common theme we often see in tech-focused stories related to autism is their creators’ desires to provide emotional support and encouragement through something as seemingly inhuman and unfeeling as an app or robot. Looking at the latter, we turn our focus to Leka, a robotics start-up that has recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to bring its technology to children around the world.

Leka is a Bluetooth-enabled interactive toy, which can be paired with its corresponding app on a mobile device, and has been scientifically tested over the past two years in France and the US. It can either be manually controlled, controlled by an adult, or put on autonomous mode. According to the press release, which came with the announcement of the Indiegogo campaign, “As robots have the ability to be predictable in their actions—an important trait for children with developmental disorders—Leka is able to give users a sense of safety. Coupled with this predictability and Leka’s capability to stimulate a child’s senses, Leka can socially engage children and nurture greater, more efficient progress.”

Finally, in wrapping up our look at the week in culture, we point you to two videos that are currently on our “must-watch” list. First up is Carly Fleischmann, who despite being nonverbal, has emerged as the voice of autism. She first made headlines in 2012 when she released a video designed to show people how she processes the world around her, garnering 2 million views. Now, she’s back on top of the Internet with a new video she’s released as part of her new web series, Speechless with Carly Fleischmann. In the series’ first episode, she sat down with Hollywood A-lister Channing Tatum for a heartwarming discussion about growing up, his fears, and his marriage. You can watch that video here.

Secondly, we turn your attention to a young prodigy by the name of Jacob Velazquez, who has been playing piano for four years and just recently started giving concerts. According to the Autism Speaks site, “Shortly after his fourth birthday I heard the song playing from our family piano that my husband was playing the night before…but my husband was at work. I went to look to see who it was and to my surprise it was Jacob–I couldn’t believe my eyes! ” wrote Jacob’s mother, Tina. As she goes on, the piano became an outlet for Jacob, whose sense of technique and emotion can be seen on full display in this jaw-dropping video.