In 2006, the Foundation introduced the Marino Autism Research Institute, established with an endowment from the JM Family Foundation. MARI is an institute without walls or overhead designed to sponsor cross-university, collaborative research. This “Virtual Institute” was formed when the Foundation invited two of our nation’s premier research programs in autism – the University of Miami and Vanderbilt University – to become inaugural members. Since its inception, other universities have been added to this initiative including the University of Southern California and Nova Southeastern University. In the spring of 2008, MARI hosted a scientific symposium, “Environment and Autism Etiology,” at Vanderbilt University. The goal of the symposium was to bring together investigators whose cutting-edge research and research methods hold promise for identifying environmental factors that may be interacting with genetic factors to cause autism.
The Foundation has seen its initial investment of $1.2 million leveraged into over $20 million in funding for the universities involved.
MARI’s most recent projects include: developing socially-assistive robotics, advanced technology in signal processing, and virtual reality using intelligent virtual humans to be utilized by our students at the Dan Marino Foundation Vocational Campus. The key challenge is to find ways that important assessment and intervention activities can be translated into game activities that can engage children who have grown up “digital” and produce meaningful and measurable therapeutic/learning gains. Advancements in computing power, Virtual Reality (VR) and video game technology are creating new opportunities. These projects will design, develop and evaluate VR systems, computer game activities, and virtual human applications.
Specific to Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental conditions, researchers have followed the aircraft simulation metaphor in the creation of virtual homes, public spaces and traffic-filled streets to teach children fire safety skills, social skills, safe street-crossing and earthquake safety. Another project focuses on developing a VR-based training tool that provides a controllable, virtual environment that recreates the job interviews and other stressful employment/social situations enhancing confidence and skills.