Eight people standing next to eachother in a group photo.
Tony Gentry, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the VCU College of Health Professions, with Nursuriati Jamil, a computer science professor who hosted him during his Fulbright, and the teachers at the National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) treatment clinic, in Clang, Malaysia. (Contributed photo)

Half a world away, VCU’s Tony Gentry shares his wisdom on technology and autism

The College of Health Professions expert recently completed a long-delayed Fulbright fellowship in Malaysia.

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A few years ago, Tony Gentry’s expertise in assistive technology for autism caught the eye of computer science professor Nursuriati Jamil of the Universiti Teknologi Mara in Malaysia nearly 10,000 miles away.

Jamil wanted to improve and expand services for the autism community in her country and hoped Gentry’s knowledge could prompt clinicians, researchers and computer scientists in Malaysia to investigate, develop and utilize therapeutic tools similar to those researched by Gentry. In 2020, she offered him a two-week Fulbright Scholars fellowship in Malaysia, which he accepted.

Gentry, Ph.D., at the time was an associate professor in the Occupational Therapy Department in VCU’s College of Health Professions, and he was supposed to leave for Malaysia that year, but the project was delayed because of COVID. He finally completed the fellowship this September.

The program was based at UiTM in Shah Alam, Selangor, and included clinic and school visits in Kuala Lumpur, Klang and other sites in western Malaysia.

“Those visits provided a good sense of autism treatment from childhood to adulthood in Malaysia. I was impressed with their efforts to develop a continuum of care, including some innovative approaches to job training,” said Gentry, now a professor emeritus. “Current estimates are that 1 in 36 children may be on the autism spectrum; the greatest current challenge in Malaysia, as in most countries, is too few clinicians and teachers.”

Consumer technologies can help by providing tools for communication, everyday behavior and vocational support at home and in the community. During his fellowship, Gentry presented five 90-minute lectures on smart homes for autism, mobile devices and apps, virtual reality, robots for learning and how occupational therapists use assistive technology for autism in the U.S. The lectures were broadcast to 400 attendees around Malaysia and saved on the National Autism Resource Centre’s Facebook page.

A photo of a man wearing a virtual reality headset in a room full of people. Some of the people in the room are taking photos of him with phones and an ipad.
Researchers and clinicians explore the Floreo Virtual Reality system for autism that Tony Gentry, Ph.D., took to Malaysia to demonstrate following his lecture on video modeling, virtual reality and robots for learning. (Contributed photo)

Gentry also met with a multidisciplinary team that is developing plans for an autism village in Kuala Lumpur, consulted with practitioners and parents at four autism treatment centers and provided resources in the U.S. that could support autism services in Malaysia.

“It was a very busy two weeks, but I left with, I think, a well-rounded appreciation of the autism service continuum in Malaysia, while providing some guidance on how to leverage consumer technologies to support everyday function among autistic people in an affordable and straightforward way,” he said.

In Malaysia, Gentry had time to experience the culture through tours and visits to landmarks, markets and festivals. He was also honored with an invitation to a local birthday celebration and lunch at the home of a host’s parents in the historic town of Melaka.

“It was so special to spend an afternoon in the home of a Malaysian Muslim family,” Gentry said. “Just wonderful.”

One thing that struck him was how tightly knit families are in Malaysia.

“Many households are multigenerational,” Gentry said. “If someone has a disability, the entire family shares in supporting them. Malaysia is also a fascinating example of the adage that ‘the future is unevenly distributed.’ Kuala Lumpur, for instance, is an ultramodern city, while just miles away, the old tradition of training monkeys to collect coconuts is still practiced.”

Gentry hopes that adding assistive technology to the traditional caring family in Malaysia can bring the best of both worlds to serving the autism community there.