Biometric wristbands predict outbursts in people with autism

Wristbands that measure surface skin temperature and heart rate could transform the lives of people with autism by predicting big behavioural shifts

Biometric wristbands that can “see inside” the bodies of people with autism and predict dramatic behaviour changes could be commercially available within two to five years.

Dr Matthew Goodwin, an expert on wearable bio sensors in autistic patients, claims that the ability to measure minute physiological changes such as surface skin temperature and heart rate could transform the lives of people with autism.

Dr Goodwin and his team from Boston’s Northeastern University are working with a lightweight wristband, similar to a watch, which measures four physiological signals – heart rate, surface skin temperature, sweating and the three dimensional movements of the limb that’s wearing the sensor.

They are also exploring ways to stream information from wristbands live to mobile phones, via an app. This would enable a family member or teacher to closely monitor the person they are caring for.

People with severe autism, who are often unable to communicate through words or body language, are apt to dramatic behavioural changes that include self injury, aggression and running away.

Through ten years of research in America, Dr Goodwin and his team have established that body signals may be able to predict these sometimes violent changes before they happen, allowing carers the opportunity to take appropriate action.

“The autistic children we’re working with can’t tell us what’s going on. They can’t say they have a headache, or ‘it’s too loud in here’ or ‘I don’t like this teacher’,” he said.

“If we want to understand them, we need to look at what their body is telling us – and we need to do this in a gentle, unobtrusive way.”

two people holding hands in supportBiometric data could help carers better support autism sufferers

For instance, a simple visualisation of colours could denote the level of agitation – red could be used as a warning of behavioural change, and blue could be used to denote under-arousal, allowing a carer to understand when the person is bored and lacking stimulation.

Data from the wristbands could also be collected over time and saved on a secure server, allowing carers to understand the bigger picture of how the person responds to different situations, and to understand what interventions work best.

“I need to be clear that we are not reading minds. Bio sensors aren’t magic – they still need a human to interpret them.”

He said that his team would be working with manufacturers to further develop this technology so that it can be autism-specific.

The research has been welcomed by Jane Carolan, director of client services at Wirral Autistic Society, which will be showcasing the technology at its Autech 2015 conference on autism and technology in Manchester on 1 October.

“When you work with people with severe autism, as we do, you see the dramatic difference that assistive technology can make to their quality of life. iPad apps are now, literally, giving a voice to people who have never spoken. Robots are helping autistic children learn to play peek-a-boo. Who knows where this innovation may lead us,” she said.

“Assistive technologies can be truly life-changing and we feel it is part of our mission as an autism charity to ensure everyone has access this information and is part of the debate about how we want to support people with autism in the future.”

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