Autism is a lifelong developmental condition characterised by difficulties with language and social interaction, and a tendency for repetitive behaviours. It is a spectrum condition, meaning that its symptoms and their severity vary greatly from one individual to the next. Those who experience autism range from the high functioning, such as naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham, through to people for whom it’s a profound disability, precluding the possibility of an independent life.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the autism prevalence to be 1 in 59 children, with approximately five times more males being diagnosed than females. In the UK, the rate is thought to be around 1 in 100.
Fight or flight
It has emerged that many autistic people process sensory information differently – to the point that some sensations, loud sounds, for example, can cause pain.
The frustration of not being able to communicate their predicament to others, or to regulate the resulting emotional distress, can lead to a state of extreme anxiety, known colloquially as a meltdown. It’s not naughtiness and it’s not a tantrum. It’s a fight-or-flight response to a state of severe distress – the same distress you or I might experience if our lives were in danger.
So imagine if caregivers could receive a notification to their mobile phone the instant a child’s anxiety levels begin to rise. Researchers at Northeastern University, Maine Medical Centre and the University of Pittsburgh are developing just such a system. It works using a wristband, rather like a sports watch, that monitors biometric data (literally meaning ‘body measurements’) – specifically, the wearer’s heartbeat, skin temperature, sweat levels and acceleration. The latter is important in autistic people, who often flap their arms as a way to emotionally regulate themselves (one of a group of behaviours known as ‘stimming’).
The wristband is being trialled at a residential care facility for autistic people. Video and audio monitoring equipment has also been installed at the facility, as well as devices to record light levels, ambient temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.
The hope is that all this extra data will not just help predict meltdowns, but also assist in understanding how an autistic person’s immediate environment can exacerbate their condition. And that could help architects design new residential homes tailored to people on the autistic spectrum, and to consider the needs of the autistic individual when designing other buildings, such as shops and cinemas.
In the coming years, this technology may combine with the Internet of Things to enable automated safeguards in the care of those on the autism spectrum. For people on this spectrum – who may lack the language skills to express how they’re feeling or who are often intellectually impaired – the benefits could be even more profound.
Dr Paul Parsons is a science writer and analyst based in Aylesbury, England. He is a lapsed cosmologist, a former managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine, and once spent a summer working in a toilet roll factory. His books include 'The Beginning and the End of Everything', 'The Science of Doctor Who' and, most recently, '10 Short Lessons in Space Travel'.