Center for Brain Health Uses Technology to Help Autistic Children Practice Interaction

Carl Lutz can trace the genesis of his career to an event from his grade-school days: A friend of his got a Nintendo Entertainment System, a video-game console that had just come on the market.

“He had Super Mario Bros. I watched him play it once, and I was instantly hooked,” Lutz said. “And I didn’t leave my mom alone until we got one.”

Twenty-eight years later, he’s the creative director at UT-Dallas’s Center for Brain Health. What does such a job entail?

“I like to say I turn neuroscience into video games,” Lutz said.

After studying computer animation at the Art Institute of Dallas, film at UT-Arlington, and video games at UT-Dallas, Lutz started a game studio in partnership with a fellow student and a professor. Eventually, they started consulting for the center, a research facility dedicated to studying the brain in order to strengthen its lifelong function.

“I loved what they were doing here,” Lutz said. “The virtual-reality project they wanted to develop sounded fascinating.”

The center’s researchers wanted to create a safe place where people with autism and other social deficits could practice interaction. To hear Lutz tell it, his background in video games was ideal for several reasons:

– Video games are fun: “We know that when we’re having fun, our brains learn better.”

– Video games hold our focus: “Have you ever had to step in front of the TV or call someone’s name four or five times before they turn it off? When we have that kind of focus, we learn better.”

– Video games are a safe place to fail: “Gamers spend 80 percent of their time failing. When you’re comfortable failing, then you’re comfortable trying new things and experimenting and stepping outside of your comfort zone.”

Carl Lutz uses the Brain Table to display blunt-force trauma injuries that a patient suffered during a car accident. Photo: Chris McGathey
Carl Lutz uses the Brain Table to display blunt-force trauma injuries that a patient suffered during a car accident. Photo: Chris McGathey

Tandra Allen, a leader of the center’s social cognition project, said a simple conversation can be outside the comfort zone of a person with autism.

“Because of the incredible realism brought to the game by Carl and his team, they’re suddenly playing a game instead of worrying about what to do or say,” Allen said. “Participants feel comfortable trying conversations they otherwise would never attempt.”

Fittingly, the virtual small town they’re building is called “Brainville.” It includes an apartment building, a bookstore, and a coffee shop, so participants in the center’s studies can practice applying for jobs at multiple businesses. A school and a movie theater are in the works.

In 2010, center founder Sandra Bond Chapman offered Lutz staff positions for him and his whole team. These days, the team consists of five full-timers besides Lutz and three part-timers. Their projects range from apps to websites to online tests.

But their prized creation is the Brain Table, an interactive display that supports 32 touches at a time.

“When we bring someone in who is not a neuropsychologist with four PhDs, and we’re talking about this brain science, I watch people, and they’re smiling,” Lutz said. “They’re reaching down and touching, and they’re looking at things. They’re engaged and having fun.”

Just like Lutz was when he saw Nintendo for the first time.

Dan Koller is the managing editor of People Newspapers, a D Magazine affiliate. This story originally ran in the newspapers’ Preston Hollow edition.

Posted in Education, News, Technology.