With the rise of the era of smartwatches, Matthew Goodwin, Northeastern University’s behavioural scientist, has taken this technology into the health field and created a wearable wrist device for people with autism. This device can predict aggressive outbursts 60 seconds in advance by monitoring the individual’s physiological indicators of stress. “Their arousal levels are already at the ceiling,” says Goodwin, an associate professor with joint appointments in Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the Khoury College of Computer and Sciences. “It takes very little to cross the tipping point.” People with Autism have a tough time communicating with their caregivers and telling them about their distress. Their resting levels of stress are much higher than normal and these factors contribute to unexpected outbursts of aggression.
Goodwin attempts to break the communication gap and allows the caregiver to have prior notice of an outburst. He observed 20 children with autism and tracked their physiological changes over a period of time before an outburst. Through the collected data, they corresponded certain changes with the onset of aggression. These physiological changes included changes in heart rate, sweat production, skin surface temperature, and arm movements. Goodwin then synchronised these changes with biosensors fit into a wristwatch that the children with autism would wear. On the test run, Goodwin was able to achieve 84% accuracy in predicting the outbursts a minute in advance. About these numbers, he says, “But those aren’t magic numbers. Those are just limitations of our data set. As our data set grows and we use more sophisticated machine learning models, I think we might get more than 60 seconds.”
Goodwin hopes to eliminate these fears by providing some clarity of the future. “Some parents say that even if we can only give them 60 percent accuracy, that’s better than chance, which is what they’ve got now,” Goodwin says. “They say that would be priceless.” Goodwin further aims to increase his sample size from 20 to 240 with the help of funds from the department of defence, the Simons Foundation and the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation to further eliminate fears of families of taking their children with autism out due to the unpredictability of their behaviour.