Wearables are the future. Children on the autism spectrum also need a little extra help navigating human relationships and stressful situations, says Ned Sahin, CEO and president of Cambridge-based Brain Power. He hopes his company can bring wearables to autistic children through a suite of products called the Empowered Brain that will allow children and their parents to identify, assess and assist with the challenges or symptoms related to autism.
Sahin, a trained neuroscientist, and his team certainly have their work cut out for them. One in 68 children in the United States is considered to be on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Referred to as a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, the autism spectrum can cause social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
For these reasons and more, dealing with and diagnosing autism’s many symptoms can be difficult for children and their families. “It turns out there’s no blood test, no brain scan, no numerical way to diagnose autism,” says Sahin.
Brain Power’s Empowered Brain solution includes software products that can be loaded onto Google Glass. These products diagnose and coach children with issues related to social interactions, language, behavior control and category formation. Category formation can be described as a difficulty with recognizing abstract categories like “ball” or “dog” or “happy.”
Here’s how this works: First, a child puts on Google Glass, which is loaded with Brain Power software. In what could be described as a “gamified” experience, the child is then rewarded for looking other people in the eye during interactions with them, or for accurately determining whether that person is happy or sad. Children can also learn to calm down in a private and undetectable way – perhaps with a soothing image or a sound self-selected by the child – during a potentially stressful experience (the alternative would be what’s called “stimming,” or repetitive motor behaviors that can be off putting to those unfamiliar with the behaviors of children with autism). See the graphic below for a look at what you’d see if you put on Google Glass and used the Empowered Brain software:
Sahin refers to these digital experiences as lessons. “Like Math or piano lessons, you learn from the experience; and it extends to the rest of your life,” he says. And he’s not anticipating that children will use the solution 24/7. Rather, just like a parent and child may read together for an hour, they’ll spend an hour a day interacting with each other while the child wears customized Google Glass.
Now that the technology has been developed, next steps for Sahin and his team include a beta test with children and their parents to determine how the technology works in the real world of people’s real homes. Sahin hopes to wrap up the beta test in the second half of 2015. At this stage of development, they’ll focus on children between the ages of 6 and 16 with mild to moderate autism spectrum disorders. With his team’s data-driven approach, he hopes to use anonymized data to drive core features of subsequent versions of the product.
A potential early adopter of the technology is Zuleka Queen-King’s 7-year-old son. Her son was diagnosed with autism when he was two, and while they were living in Barbados. In fact, they moved to the United States specifically so that her son could get better treatment for his autism. Introduced to the Empowered Brain programming about a month ago, Queen-King says that her son thought it was “completely cool” and that he “took to it right away.” “Like most kids on the autism spectrum, he loves technology, so he loved the experience,” she says.
While she doesn’t know what the future holds for her son, Queen-King feels good about the contribution that her family can make to help other families struggling with the issues she and her son face every day.
(If, like the folks at Brain Power, you’re innovating with Google Glass in the healthcare sector, submit your ideas to Medstro’s Wearables in Healthcare Pilot Challenge!)
Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is an on-staff contributing writer for MedTech Boston. She's a political scientist by education, a writer and marketer by trade. She has written for various healthcare technology publications and also served as marketing director at several healthcare software companies in the Boston area. Cryts is an avid volunteer, pet lover and long-distance runner. Story ideas are always welcome.
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