State-of-the-art wireless wristwatch-like technology may be a great pathway into the minds, hearts and bodies of people with complex conditions like autism.
In a just released feasibility study done here at The Center for Discovery® in conjunction with the University of Missouri, University of Buffalo, and CUBRC, Inc., and published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, Q-Sensor pod wristbands tracked the electrodermal activity (EDA), or skin responses, of 8 students with ASD over the course of 1 year. The wristbands registered sweat activity typically associated with the “flight-or-fight” or stress response controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
60% of the time, the EDA rose prior to the individual with autism exhibiting a problem behavior. Dr. Johanna Lantz, Chief of Psychology at The Center for Discovery®, and an author of the study, says of the other 40% of the problem behaviors that had no EDA predictor: “I think it speaks a little more to the impulsive nature of the behavior.” She believes this is valuable technology that almost forces researchers, educators, and clinicians to examine the individual’s whole environment and to ask critical questions as well as tailor a plan of coping strategies specific to that person’s behavior profile.
Researchers also found that the EDA or skin response did not immediately return to normal after a behavior, which signified that the individual was still struggling sometimes more than 20 minutes after the episode. In fact, EDA after a problem behavior returned to median baseline levels only 45% of the time.
Dr. Lantz says this is a significant lesson; “The common mistake is trying to re-engage someone in their activities right after the behavior…that person still needs an intervention activity to continue on with their day. We need to take our time with them.”
This is a critical area of work at The Center for Discovery® which is approached in many ways. Dr. Lantz says her field can be challenged in designing and developing programs for people with limited language abilities as most stress, anxiety, and anger-reducing activities generally involve speaking. “People with complex conditions like autism require an environment that is soothing and that has activities like sound healing like we do here at The Center,” says Lantz. Sound healing is a part of the Music Therapy program at TCFD which utilizes gongs, crystal bowls, bells, and other added, stress reduction “instruments” for relaxation.
At The Center, residents and students also interact with nature on a daily basis. And they eat a whole-foods organic diet. Vigorous exercise and movement in various forms, upwards of 65% of the day, is also a key to HealthE6 Model at The Center for Discovery®, which is specifically designed to combat stress and anxiety.
The study is a big first step in using cutting-edge wearable wireless technology to access the state of a person before, during, and after an episode of irritation, anger, anxiety, or fear.
A larger ongoing study at The Center for Discovery® using thousands of files of raw data collected over the past 8 years and analytic machine learning is underway, which may lead to a whole new chapter in research that could examine a person across “systems” like the gastrointestinal and neurological systems. “We don’t just see autism as a brain disorder. It is a whole-body disorder,” says Lantz; “We are aligned with researchers around the world who are looking for a better understanding of how it all intersects.”
In the meantime, the wristband technology showed it could give a “voice” to some non-verbal individuals when they were anxious or stressed, and guide teachers, parents, clinicians and others in their response.
For more information on the study, please reach out to Dr. Johanna Lantz, Chief of Psychology, at JLantz@tcfd.org.