Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

Designing Solutions

Assistant Professor Ed-Dee Williams is developing an app to help young Black autistic people better describe their mental health needs.

When he began work in 2015 on a doctorate in social work at the University of Michigan, Ed-Dee Williams wasn’t particularly interested in software development. But sometimes you just have to get creative. Williams, a newly hired assistant professor in the Boston College School of Social Work, researches the intersection of race and mental illness. His work has inspired him to develop an app that he hopes will improve the lives of young people with autism who are experiencing depression but struggling to communicate their symptoms to a mental health professional.

In his academic work, Williams, who is Black, has seen the striking evidence of how a young person’s race can affect their mental health treatment. For instance, while conducting field research at an institution that served as both a traditional juvenile detention center and a boarding school for troubled teens, he noticed a disparity in how the behavior of the children there was being diagnosed. When the tuition-paying boarding school students, most of them white, misbehaved, it tended to be attributed to their mental health diagnoses. “Parents could say ‘my kid is depressed and that’s why they’re acting this way,’” Williams recalled. “But hardly any of the kids on the other side were diagnosed with depression.” They were children of color, for the most part, and they were often labeled as having behavioral issues.

While at the University of Michigan in 2021, Williams met Matthew Smith, the director of a lab at the school that helps young people in underserved groups transition to adulthood. Smith had created a computer program to help young autistic people practice job interview skills. Williams, who has an autistic older brother, was intrigued. He wondered if Smith’s technology could be used to help Black autistic people get treatment for depression by aiding them in describing their symptoms more effectively. “Getting support for depression is about being able to express what you’re feeling,” Williams said. “And unfortunately for autistic youth, there’s often difficulty in symptom expression and communicating what you need.”

Williams realized that a smartphone app inspired by Smith’s program might help. For the next two years, he interviewed Black autistic youth and their parents, and designed the app. The result was a tool that allows users to role-play a conversation in which they describe their mental health symptoms to an actor playing a teacher. Teachers are a critical link, Williams said, between students and mental health services, because young people often feel comfortable reaching out to them for help.

Williams said he hopes to launch the app this summer. The tool could not just help Black autistic youth get help for depression and live a happier life, he said, but also bring to light the needs of an often overlooked community. “Black youth have these very specific contextual experiences that we don’t examine,” he said.

Screenshot showing how the app works

  Courtesy of Ed-Dee Williams

A new app developed by Assistant Professor Ed-Dee Williams helps autistic young people who are experiencing depression learn to better describe their symptoms. Here’s how it works:

After logging into the app, users select a symptom associated with depression. They are then asked to describe that symptom to a video recording of an actor playing the part of a special education teacher. After evaluating a user’s response, the app plays a video in which the “teacher” provides feedback about how they can more effectively communicate how they are feeling. The whole thing takes about ten minutes, and users can redo the conversation as many times as they want to try out different responses.