Saturday, May 21, 2011

Are You Aroused

It's Saturday morning, the last day of IMFAR (International Meeting For Autism Researchers). This morning is special. It's the morning in which all the "technology" presentations are to be made. The display aisles are lined with researchers who are employing technology to better understand autism and how to help people with autism better relate to others.

I walk past displays of imaging systems designed to help people better interpret facial expressions, video coders and audio processors. I listen to the spiels about distance learning and remediation. I ask questions and collect business cards. I'm really enjoying it.

At the far end of the last aisle, standing next to a bar-height, circular table holding a laptop, is a young asian man. He wears bluejeans, a white button-down shirt, and an a sports jacket. As people stroll past him, he smiles ingratiatingly, extends his left hand, gestures to it with his right, and begins to speak. As the passersby pass on by, he stops, bows ever so slightly, and then turns to look down the aisle for oncoming traffic.

It seems he can hardly contain his enthusiasm for whatever it is he's presenting. So I decide to go ask him about it before he bursts.

Jackie Lee seems surprised as I walk directly to his table and ask, "So, what have you got here?"

He extends his hand to show me a milky-colored, translucent device shaped like a heart. Every second or so, a light embedded in the device flashes. He points to it and says, "See the light flashing? That is my heartbeat."

"Uh, huh. So, why do you have a device that flashes each time your heart beats?"

Jackie's now getting very excited.

"I am using it to measure my arousal level."

"And why do want to do that?"

Jackie goes on to explain that arousal levels are important to track when working with children with autism. If a child is over-aroused (e.g., has experienced an overload of sensory stimulation), he won't be receptive to interaction. When that happens it's pretty much useless to undertake any kind of therapeutic activities. It's like trying to have a deep conversation in a crowded bar after the band takes the stage; the distraction is so complete that you're unlikely to be heard, let alone understood.

Jackie tells me that it's important for parents and therapists to pay attention to the arousal level of a child so they know whether it's time to engage or time to simply help the child calm down.

I say, "This seems quite similar in nature to the wrist-band that the guys at the Media Lab (at MIT) developed. The only problem is that many kids with autism have hypersensitive tactile systems and the wristband itself can cause overstimulation. Oftentimes a child won't tolerate it and will immediately rip off the band."

Jackie steps back, his expression a mixture of surprise and delight, and then gestures to himself, saying, "Yeah, I'm one of those guys!"

Jackie completely forgets about his demonstration and begins asking me questions. We brainstorm ways to non-invasively determine arousal levels. What about using an infrared camera to measure changes in body temperature? Could we build sensors into the materials used to make clothing? What about hats or toys?

We have a great time. Jackie asks me for my business card and we agree to connect.

Later in the day as I say goodbye to a researcher from a university in Canada, I turn around and there's Jackie, his smile as bright as it was in the morning. He shakes my hand wanting to pick up on our conversation. He tells me that he wants to engage in a project just as soon as he completes his PhD work in June.

I ask him about his thesis. He explains that he's been using various biometric devices that help determine arousal level and then coordinating the measurements with external observations of the subject and that much of the time he has been the subject. He records how he's feeling throughout the day and then compares it with what the devices measured at that time.

I say, "So, basically you're using biometric devices to help increase self-awareness?"

He smiles, "Yes!"

Jackie explains that since he's been doing this work, he has become increasingly aware of his state of being and how that manifests physically.

Really cool.

We both ended our conversation quite excited about the possibilities and working together.

I'll let you know what we come up with.

Happy Saturday,

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