Physical therapist develops assistive technologies for developmentally disabled young adults

SudhuSrinivasanTrained as a pediatric physical therapist, Sudha Srinivasan focuses on assisting children and adults with developmental disabilities. She joined the Department of Kinesiology as assistant professor in January 2019.

While a Ph.D. student at UConn, Srinivasan’s research centered on two main projects—early detection of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during the first two years of life and development of engaging multi-system interventions for school age children with ASD. Her dissertation project, funded through NIH, compared the effects of short-term (eight weeks) music-based interventions, robotic interventions and standard-of-care interventions in four-to-twelve-year-old children with ASD.“The idea was that children with ASD have motor difficulties that increase their social interaction struggles,” Srinivasan says. “The way you navigate your physical and social environment depends greatly on your motor skills. If you have early motor impairments, it is going to affect the way you can play with your peers and learn from your caregivers through imitation, as well as your ability to communicate with them verbally or through nonverbal gestures. We believe that creative play and movement-based games serve as a great way to engage the child in meaningful and enjoyable contexts that can ultimately target the very skills impaired in children with ASD.”

Srinivasan began her postdoctoral work at the University of Delaware (UD), assessing the needs of young adults with autism, by working with the Center for Disabilities Studies at UD. She then pursued a second postdoc at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, India, where she was involved primarily in a three-year, UNICEF-funded, multi-disciplinary project working with a group of engineers, graphic designers and animators to develop an open-source augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tool, called Jellow Communicator, for children with communication difficulties.

“This is a user-friendly tool available in multiple formats, including as an app, designed for nonverbal and minimally verbal children with disabilities, including ASD and cerebral palsy,” she explains. “It’s a pictorial tool that makes sentences for the child when they click on a couple of icons in the app. For instance, if the child clicks on the banana icon and the want icon, the app will automatically speak a sentence aloud, ‘I want a banana.'” Jellow Communicator won the 2018 National Award for the best applied research/innovation or product aimed at improving the life of persons with disabilities, granted by India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

Srinivasan shares her passion for this work with her students, encouraging them to accomplish their career goals while making a difference in the lives of their clients.

“It’s so rewarding to see your efforts pay off when a child succeeds. It’s an amazing feeling. I want to inspire my students to feel that. One quality I would like to encourage in my students is perseverance. Particularly while working with neurological populations, you need great patience and cannot give up.”

Srinivasan’s current work at UConn is funded through InCHIP and is a continuation of the work she started at the University of Delaware, expanding her research to young adults with disabilities that include ASD, cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome.

“We are trying to understand the physical activity and fitness levels of this population and determine how they relate to their ability to meaningfully participate in the community,” Srinivasan says. “We hope to eventually secure a larger grant to expand this research. There is a lot of work done with children with developmental disabilities, but once they reach adulthood, it is almost as if they fall off a cliff in terms of services received and research on interventions and outcomes. Young adults with developmental disabilities are an under-served and under-studied population.”

“I want to help these individuals improve their functional levels and their participation in the community. We would like to develop physical activity programs to help improve their physical health, well-being and physical fitness. I want to ensure that my work is truly translational. Therefore, I will be involving caregivers, teachers and therapists of young adults with disabilities in this project so that the work goes beyond the study into the community and becomes self sustaining.”

Srinivasan works with community programs such as S.T.A.A.R., a collaboration between E.O. Smith High School and UConn for young students with disabilities. She says, “I will draw from the several years of expertise of teachers and therapists in these organizations and try to integrate that into my research in order to make a meaningful change in the lives of these individuals.”

Srinivasan earned her B.S. and M.S. in physiotherapy from the Maharashtra University of Health Sciences in Nasik, India. Following her her postdoctoral work, she was appointed as assistant professor at UConn and moved to Storrs with her husband, a civil engineer. They met before both enrolled in graduate school at UConn.

“I am so happy to be back,” says Srinivasan. “UConn is my alma mater and I am very comfortable here. I am working with my mentors, which is a great feeling. The department and University are very supportive of research, and there are so many accomplished people at the College, it inspires me to do better every single day.”

By Kim Colavito Markesich