Sen-ching Samson Cheung: Integrating Media into Autism Intervention

multimedia_300x200IEEE Senior Member Sen-ching Samson Cheung is enthusiastic about his long history with the IEEE. “My IEEE membership card says I have been a member for 26 years!” he exclaims. “At the time it was a great way to get to know students with the same major.” According to Cheung, his tenure with the organization has been beneficial from its beginning, when he became involved based upon a recommendation from a professor, and continues to exercise its value in his present career, as an associate professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Kentucky. His involvement with the IEEE has grown throughout the years, as he has maintained involvement in participating in different technical committees, organizing conferences, and providing his services as an associated editor and reviewer for various publications.  

Cheung was drawn to such a career at an early age. “When I grew up in Hong Kong, both my parents were teachers with an impressive collection of books. I loved reading puzzle books, biographies of scientists and mathematicians, and dreamed of one day teaching at a university and doing scientific work.” He realized, in high school and college, that he excelled at science and mathematics, but as a new immigrant in the United States at the time, he wanted to pick a major that could open doors for both pure or practical work. “That’s why I chose engineering!” he admits. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at University of Washington, and a doctoral degree in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, his work and personal life led to a research career in integrating multimedia-based instruction (MBI) into autism intervention.

Cheung was driven to this field by his son’s autism diagnosis seven years ago, and a “parent’s frustration in finding a way to help him.” After studying different literature in autism and discussing with many domain experts, he realized “that multimedia could provide an effective means to deliver various interventions due to the natural affinity of autistic children to visual medium.” Additionally, the close tie between autism interventions and visual medium meshes very well with his technical background.

With the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Cheung’s  interdisciplinary team at University of Kentucky, with faculty and students from engineering, education, psychology, and medicine, has started a research program on integrating novel multimedia technologies with evidence-based interventions. When asked about the opportunity to use his technical expertise alongside those who practice various other disciplines, as opposed to working within a single-discipline environment, Cheung says, “Besides the obvious benefit of having domain experts to provide guidance in the project development, an effective interdisciplinary environment is highly conducive in developing something that is ultimately useful and beneficial to the public. Working solely within a single-disciplinary environment can be self-serving, and sometimes leads to building something that is technologically advanced, but utterly useless.”

The IEEE has had a similar impact on Cheung’s work, allowing him access to resources from a diverse and highly interdisciplinary array of experts. “Throughout my career, IEEE has been my primary source in keeping my knowledge current, not only in my area but in a broader context of the whole field of electrical engineering and how it impacts everyone’s life in modern society. As an educator, IEEE also helps me in organizing outreach projects, providing funding and materials in helping me to reach out to different underrepresented groups in the community.” He also credits the broad, global reach of IEEE for keeping researchers and practitioners around the world aware of the important work to which researchers like him are devoting time: “I have received emails from all around the world asking about my work, because they have read my papers published in one of the IEEE magazines or conference proceedings.” As the IEEE becomes an increasingly global and interdisciplinary organization, disseminating knowledge of research used to benefit humanity can help connect and bridge those with similar interests across the globe, further enhancing the effectiveness of projects.

Cheung’s autism MBI research with his interdisciplinary team has opened many doors for him, and he has learned from his experiences along the way. “First, I have the opportunity to talk to many people in the autism community ranging from medical professionals, teachers to parents and individuals with this condition. I found that there is a very strong demand to make interventions more efficient, affordable, and manageable. I believe that technology can play a really big part of the solution to this problem.” He’s realized that more rigorous and evidence-based evaluation of technology and a broader participation and awareness from the autism community on the use of technology is paramount. And, he adds, from a personal standpoint: “I am much more hopeful about my son’s future and understand that we are not alone in this struggle.” The most important milestone he has achieved thus far, he says proudly, is that a number of his students have completed graduate degrees in this area, and have continued their research as they begin their careers.

Cheung’s research has not been without challenge, though: he admits, “The biggest challenge is to conduct human subject study. It is challenging to adapt research prototypes to something robust enough to be used by children, especially children with special needs.” As there are significant variety and preference among children with autism, recruiting suitable subjects can be difficult. He continues, “My research involves significant manpower in collecting and analyzing data so as to get robust statistics on whether a technology works or not.”

But Cheung is hopeful that the concepts he has learned can be more broadly applied to education, most directly by publishing research results in scholarly conferences and transactions, like the high-quality offerings that the IEEE puts forth. He continues, “I have also developed new courses on technology and autism for my home department, and raise awareness of our work by talking to mass media, local autism groups, and running demonstrations at local schools and open houses.” Additionally, much of the research in his group is conducted by graduate and undergraduate students. According to Cheung, “They are the true ambassadors to bring the ideas to wherever they go after graduation.” Nurturing a group of engineers who dedicate themselves to bettering humanity is, admittedly, an achievement of which Cheung is incredibly proud, and will continue to carry both his mission and the mission of the IEEE into the future.

For more in-depth information on Dr. Samson Cheung’s research, read his recent article, Integrating Multimedia into Autism Intervention, in IEEE Multimedia, a multi-Society IEEE magazine published by the IEEE Computer Society.