How wearable devices are helping people with autism manage anxiety

A customisable wearable device developed by researchers at Lancaster University is helping adults with autism understand their anxieties.

For many, using wearable technology like an Apple Watch or a Fitbit is a little luxury which provides extra convenience when doing exercise or daily tasks.

But that’s only scraping the surface of what wearable devices have the potential to achieve, and researchers and scientists are using technology for projects from harnessing big data to help diagnose and treat disease to using smartphones and Bluetooth beacons to transform travel for the blind.

One research project involves researchers at Lancaster University working in partnership with the charity Autism Initiatives UK to build connected devices to help people living with autism, 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.

Today autism is generally diagnosed in childhood, but the condition wasn’t so well understood in the past, and 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 looks to help.

“There’s a lot of research and services around children, but with adults, particularly on the high end of the spectrum, they tended to fall through the gaps because sometimes the condition was difficult to detect and diagnose,” Dr Maria Angela Ferrario, research Fellow at the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster and team leader of Clasp, told ZDNet.

The first incarnation of the 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.

“If there was a long squeeze, that would mean they were anxious and a message would be sent and the app would have picked up on that. Also, as part of the app, we had a social network system — whenever a person shared their location or state of anxiety with the group, the information was collected,” says Ferrario.

However, this initial stage of the project 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,” she says.

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The research team took these lessons and used them to develop a new system of more customisable wearable devices. The team also realised that the squeezeball wasn’t the best sort of connected device to use to record interactions.

“We found that the squeezeball didn’t suit many people — it was a bit awkward with the communication, and the size and shape of it was an issue,” said Dr Will Simm, research associate at the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster and technical lead of Clasp.

The second iteration of the project was designed in such a way that people could customise it to use in a manner they deemed to be the most appropriate for them.

“We came up the idea of a toolkit of components which could be put together with their own personalised sensors, their own location for wearing it for their own characterisation of anxiety,” says Simm.

One of the first prototypes was a wristband made up with a central computing pod designed to allow the user to customise the sensors attached to it.

“We wanted to make them as available and customisable as possible, so we used techniques like 3D printing and an open source environment to programme it, with the intention of being able to customise it further and build their own device,” says Simm.

Researchers quickly learned that 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 generate data which is transferred to a computer via Bluetooth whenever the user meets with a researcher, who helps them analyse the situation which triggered the response.

“We highlight the times they’ve been using it and discuss what situation they were in. It helps to reveal some different layers about their experience of anxiety,” says Simm, adding that some people said it helped them understand their anxieties more.

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 Simm.

 Sending a signal about feeling anxious through the wearable device allows the user to express their feelings without verbalising them.

“Physical interactions manifest a state beyond verbalisation, especially moments of anxiety, which can be a very abstract concept as well as being a very overwhelming state of mind. Verbalisation is quite difficult and through this kind of interaction it can help,” says Ferrario.

While users sitting down with support and discussing why they were feeling anxiety allows the researchers who analyse data in the long run, this connectivity also brought immediate benefits to some users who viewed wearing the device as helpful in itself.

“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,” says Simm.

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