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New type of wearable help people with autism control anxiety

Wearables such as smart glasses (Google Glass e.g.) have been used before in projects to help discover autism at an early age. Another research project involving wearables and autism involves researchers at Lancaster University working in partnership with the charity Autism Initiatives UK. Together, they build connected devices to help people living with autism. This is a developmental condition that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.

People living with autism can be susceptible to extreme anxiety and social awkwardness. Because the condition wasn’t so well understood in the past, as a result adults on the autism spectrum have often lacked support especially those with high-functioning autism who hadn’t been recognised as living with the condition until recently. It’s these people Lancaster University’s wearable device-based Clasp project is targeting.

The first project saw a game controller repurposed as a ‘digital squeezeball’ for the user to squeeze when they feel anxious.  Data from those interactions was recorded using a companion app and the information later used to find out what caused the anxiety and when it happened. A long squeeze meant anxiety. A message would be sent and picked up by the app. Also, there was a social network system – whenever a person shared their location or state of anxiety with the group, the information was collected.

Problems in the initial stage

This initial stage stumbled because people didn’t feel with comfortable about sharing data about where they were most vulnerable with people they didn’t know or didn’t trust. With this lesson in mind, a new system of  more customisable wearable devices was developed.

The team also realised that the squeezeball wasn’t the best sort of connected device to use to record interactions. So the second iteration of the project was designed so people could customise it to use in a manner they deemed to be the most appropriate for them. People could use a toolkit of components which could be put together with personalised sensors, their own location for wearing it for their own characterisation of anxiety.

Analysing triggered responses

One prototype was a wristband with a central computing pod designed to allow the user to customise the sensors attached to it. People would use the device in different ways — such as wrapped around their wrist, tied to a belt loop, or carried in their hand — and then tug or squeeze on it when they were happy or anxious. Those actions generated data, to be transferred to a computer via Bluetooth whenever the user meets with a researcher, who helps them analyse the situation which triggered the response.

Users’ interactions with the device were captured digitally then displayed to them on a data visualisation platform, to help them to identify and understand why they get more anxious at a certain time and discuss the potential causes with researchers’ support.

"People with autism tend to have a positive outlook on life but they don’t tend to recall the exact timings of things which happened; the visualisation really helps as an anchor," says Dr Will Simm, research associate at the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster and technical lead of Clasp. "By being anxious but knowing that it was being recorded by the device, that was enough for them to break out of that anxiety state. Formerly when they became anxious, there was no release, but by just interacting with the device knowing its being recorded allows them to move on.”


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