We phoned Matthew a few days ago, this is what he said!

Biometric technology which helps ‘see inside’ the bodies of those with autism by measuring minute physiological changes such as surface skin temperature and heart rate, could be commercially available in the form of simple wristbands within two to five years.

That’s according to Dr Matthew Goodwin, a world-leading authority on wearable bio sensors from Boston’s Northeastern University, who will present his research findings to delegates at Autech 2015, a conference on autism and technology to be held in Manchester on 1 October.

Autech 2015 has been organised by charity Wirral Autistic Society to highlight some of the key innovations – such as robotics and cloud-based technology – that have the power to transform the lives of people with autism.

People with severe autism, who are 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, 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.

Dr Goodwin said, “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.  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.”

Dr Goodwin is working with a lightweight wristband, similar to a watch, which measures four physiological signals.  Along with heart rate and surface skin temperature, it measures the amount of sweating at the surface of the skin and the three dimensional movements of the limb that’s wearing the sensor (rapid, repetitive movements are often a sign of agitation in people with autism). The combined data may be able to predict behaviour changes in the wearer before they happen.

Goodwin and his team 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 monitor closely the person they are caring for.  For instance, a simple traffic light visualisation of colours could denote the level of agitation; red could be used as a warning of behavioural change.  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.
Dr Goodwin said, “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 bio sensors capable of predicting seizures were now being marketed  and that his team would be working with manufacturers to further develop this technology so that it can be autism-specific.

Jane Carolan, director of client services at Wirral Autistic Society and organiser of Autech 2015, said, “When I heard about Matthew’s work I knew we had to get him to the UK.  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. Over the next decade we may even see thought-activated technology, advanced robotics and augmented reality – technologies that we once thought of as science fiction – becoming widely available and affordable.

“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.”

A visual guide to wearable biometric wristbands.