Engineering Professor Awarded $800,000 NSF Grant for Autism Therapy Research


LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 19, 2012) — University of Kentucky electrical and computer engineering professor Sen-Ching (Samson) Cheung, whose research into autism therapies using a "virtual mirror" was highlighted by The Chronicle of Higher Education last spring, recently received substantial funding for his research from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The four-year grant, totaling nearly $800,000, will go toward developing new display and image processing technologies for synthesizing self-model and mirror feedback imageries. The goal is to enhance the delivery of behavior therapy to individuals with autism and related disorders. Cheung will be the primary investigator, collaborating with Lisa Ruble from the College of Education, Ramesh Bhatt from the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Neelkamal Soares in Pediatrics at UCLA as co-PIs.

"The co-PIs, my doctoral student Ju Shen and I have been working hard on this project for almost two years now," Cheung said. "We are all very excited to have this project finally funded. The concept of 'self' is an important area in autism research. Children with autism typically lack interest in social interactions, but appear to be highly interested in their own image in mirrors and others imitating their actions. Under this new grant, we will be developing new software and hardware systems that can provide unprecedented capability in creating novel behaviors of self in both traditional visual medium and novel immersive devices, including the 'virtual mirror.'"

In the virtual mirror, a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will be able to look at himself in a large computer display. As he is looking at himself, the program will take his image and virtually create the child carrying out the very actions he needs to learn (speaking, sitting still, social interactions with others, etc.). Through seeing the instant visual feedback from the virtual mirror, Cheung hopes that this new technology can help autistic children better concentrate on behavioral learning and generalizing abstract concepts to daily life.

"We are also hoping that systems like this can provide greater flexibility to therapists, teachers, and caretakers in creating material for self-modeling therapy, and help researchers to better understand how self is perceived among individuals with autism," he said.

[IMAGE4]Research in autism has been taking place all over the UK campus. One of Cheung's co-PIs in the College of Education, Lisa Ruble, recently had a book published on school-based consultation intervention titled "Collaborative Model for Promoting Competence and Success for Students with ASD." The book, which is a result of two NIH funded studies of the model, presents strategies for writing measurable goals and outcomes in social development, communication and learning skills for positive growth, and can be used as the basis for building comprehensive and coordinated programs for those with ASD.

"Practitioners working with children with ASD, particularly in child and school psychology, special education, rehabilitation, social work, speech pathology, and developmental psychology, will find a consultation model that empowers teachers, families, and above all, students," says Ruble.

Ruble's colleagues in the college, Victoria Knight and Amy Spriggs, have also helped create a new autism certificate program. Delivered through the College of Education, the certificate consists of five courses to be taken over the span of two summers. These courses are meant to provide a foundation of knowledge about the strengths and needs of those with ASD as well as a variety of instructional approaches for individuals with ASD.  It further educates students on communication methods for individuals with autism and how to utilize technology to better communicate and teach those with ASD. Students also demonstrate proficiency via role-play, case studies, video examples and direct observation of individuals with ASD.

"As the prevalence of ASD increases throughout the nation and state, the challenges of providing quality programming for students in general and special education are growing," said Spriggs, an assistant professor in the college's Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling. "Using a unique distance delivered model, the certificate has the potential to provide advanced credentials in this critical need area for special education teachers and related personnel professionals across Kentucky."

More information about Ruble's team's work can be found at

"This project represents a significant interdisciplinary effort between four colleges: Engineering, Education, Medicine as well as Arts and Sciences," says Cheung. "Much of the research will be conducted at the UK Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments which provides a great deal of flexibility and space for interdisciplinary research. I am a new comer in autism research, and have greatly benefited by working with my colleagues all around campus who are domain experts in autism."

Cheung first became involved in this research when he and his wife learned that their own son had ASD. He thought if their son and other autistic children could watch themselves accomplishing basic daily living tasks, they would be more likely to develop those skills. 

"The number of individuals diagnosed with this condition is rising at a very alarming rate, all over the globe," Cheung said. "It is our key mission to move the technology as soon as possible to the community in the hope of providing some additional tools to help the individuals and families who are struggling with this condition, including my own." 

MEDIA CONTACT: Jenny Wells, (859) 257-5343;