Kristy Johnson Dissertation Defense

August 11, 2021
1:30pm ET

Dissertation Title:  Foundations of Cognitive, Affective, and Communicative Systems for Neurodiverse Individuals


Individuals with complex neurodevelopmental differences, including some individuals with autism and/or genetic disorders, often struggle with cognition, communication, emotion regulation, motor coordination, and social interaction. At the same time, these individuals offer untapped insight into fundamental questions of human nature: How do we learn? How and why do we communicate? Why do we do what we do? In many respects, these individuals constitute some of the greatest need and potential for scientific inquiry and advancement; yet they are difficult to bring into clinics, almost impossible to assess using a single modality, and often cannot provide accurate verbal indicators of how they are feeling or what they are thinking. Moreover, the population is small, heterogeneous, and geographically distributed. There is inconsistent terminology to describe this group, few standardized assessments that are sensitive and accessible for this population, and unequal access to support, technology, research, and funding. Lastly, there is an overwhelming focus on what they cannot do. 

This thesis investigates how individuals with complex neurodevelopmental differences can and do thrive. Here, I present the design, framework, and implementation of systems that can elucidate the ways in which neurodiverse individuals are learning and growing across cognitive, affective, and communicative domains. These systems include custom-built hardware, software, mathematical models, novel methodologies, publicly released datasets, and multiple scientific studies. Each study is built around strengths-based research questions -- asking what these individuals can do -- and personalized, naturalistic study paradigms.

Specifically, I introduce a multi-modal, customizable learning platform designed to motivate skill development for this population while automating data collection and feedback. I also describe a personalized, naturalistic fMRI study probing the neural correlates of special interests in children both with and without autism. Finally, I present a system of remote data acquisition and individualized speech signal processing that seeks to characterize how individuals with few spoken words communicate using non-speech vocalizations. This research aims to build the foundation for a transdisciplinary center for the study and advancement of these exceptional individuals, with the intention of expanding our understanding of human cognition, motivation, and language.

Committee members: 

Rosalind Picard, Sc.D. 
Professor of Media Arts & Sciences 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

John Gabrieli, Ph.D. 
Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences & Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
Helen Tager-Flusberg, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences 
Boston University
Shri Narayanan, Ph.D. 
University Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Linguistics, Psychology & Neuroscience, Pediatrics, and Otolaryngology University of Southern California

More Events