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"+me" transitional wearable to motivate autistic children to interact socially

A photo taken during Maker Faire European Edition in Rome, 2015
Accessible Product

Global Elevate Awards Runner-up 2016

Category: Healthcare, Education, Assistive Technology,

Nomination Details

Organization name: Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies - National Research Council of Italy (ISTC-CNR)

Launched Date: 2014-06-15

Who has created it: Beste Ozcan

Problem statement and how the Accessible Innovation solves the problem.

+me is a "transitional wearable (TW)" which means soft interactive mechatronic device looking like a tender animal or a security blanket directed to enhance social interaction and communication between a child with autism and an adult.

The first core feature of TW is that they have the powerful reassuring features of what in psychology are called “transitional objects”. Since expectations and judgments involved in social contexts might appear “unsafe” to children with autism, making social interactions problematic, many children with ASD develop an attachment to a transitional object, for example a teddy bear. +me can thus be used as a reliable source of soothing and confidence when the autistic child explores the world “far” from parents, caregivers and known objects and places.

The second core feature of +me, also shared with wearable computers (also simply called wearables), is that they contain an embedded mechatronic device that allows them to react to the actions of the child. The device can hence also be seen as a robot having actuators that can emit lights, sounds, and vibrations in response to the child acting on its touch/interactive sensors, and these responses are controlled by an onboard computer (e.g., an Arduino board). The features can be remotely controlled to adjust the type of feedbacks the pillow returns. The feedback can thus be either directly caused by the child's action, or it can be controlled remotely by an adult.

Tell us who is the target audience and how the accessible innovation will benefit them. Please specify the different target audiences groups and provide numbers and statistics of your current clients as well as what is the potential number of people that the innovation can impact and empower:

Autism therapy centres: Only in Italy there are almost 30 therapy centres for autism in the period of 2016-2020; each centre has approximately 50 children with autism. Families with children with autism: Statistically every year there is a newborn with autism in every 88 babies (Centre for Disease Control, 2014). It can be seen from the twitter account of the project that there is a growing interest from all over the world.

How is the accessible innovative solution different from current practices or ways of solving the problem?

There are many challenges of technology-based products and prototypes, yet very little is known about how well these solutions are currently integrated into lives of children and adults with autism and their families and, to date, the potential of these new technologies has only partially exploited. +me as a TW could be used to deal with this challenge.

TWs have the potentiality to open up novel interaction methods to facilitate the social interactions between children with ASD and the caregivers, therapists and the environment. For example, TWs give sensorial feedbacks, possibly controlled by the therapist through a tablet application, depending both on the child's reactions and bio-signals. Interactivity of TWs offers autistic children a way into the intersubjective object world by suggesting the possibility that the world is indeed responsive to their needs and fantasies and that the outer world does yield a place for their inner lives, thus allowing space for the expression of their internal states.

The novel method the TWs provide is the interpersonal interaction that occurs during therapies which are defined, modified and controlled by the therapists. As mentioned in a famous quote If you meet one child with autism, "you've met one child with autism" each child is unique, so, there is a necessity to have not only customizable but also personalizable health care products.

Through embedded biosensors (e.g., EDA, HRV) into a wristband dressed by child, caregivers or therapists can visualise his physiological data on the tablet application, so to have a better idea about the child's stress level, and consequently change the current parameters of the TW sensorial feedbacks. This allows the therapists to have personalised and customised therapy methods to apply with the TWs.

How is the accessible innovative solution new, different or unique in terms of the technology or implementation?

The "+me" as a TW can be carried along by the child and has engaging affective properties typical of transitional objects, for example the wearable resemble a tender animal and is made of soft materials. The features and the physical contact of the wearable give the child a sense of protection and stability thus supporting her/him in the engagement and exploration of the unknown physical and social world. A TW contains a mechatronic device with sensors and actuators, i.e. an embedded robot, that can suitably react to the actions of the child. For example, when the child presses a paw of the animal, the wearable responds with the production of various visual and auditory stimuli.

A TW can be a social TW (STW) if it can connect (e.g., via bluetooth) with external electronic or mechatronic devices, such as a computer, a tablet (as in this case), or another TW, and these devices are under the control of other human agent, for example the caregiver or another child. These devices allow these other agents to interfere, modulate, modify the ways in which the TW reacts to the actions of the child, thus giving an important social dimention to the TW.

A TW can be a physiological TW – PTW if its mechatronic component contains physiological sensors (e.g., to detect the current skin conductance and heart rate of the child). These sensors can be used to allow the TW to react to the child internal state, for example to manifest to the child herself her affective state through its actuators (e.g., a light pulsing with the child’s heart rate), or to give real-time information on the child’s emotional state to caregivers, for example to a therapist or a parent via a tablet.

We are working on the final, improved prototype that will include all the critic features requested by a TW: the whole system will be integrated with a wristband with low cost, low power, and non-intrusive biosensors for movements and physiological data recording including heart rate (HR); heart rate variability (HRV); electrodermal activity (EDA),Skin Temperature (SKT); accelerometer. Such data will be sent to the therapist, through the tablet application, so to allow him a real-time evaluation of stress, engagement, and emotional states of the current child's activity (and also data concerning limbs movements). This information will help the therapist in a deeper understanding of kids emotional state, so that it will be possible to adapt quickly and in a more objective way the therapeutic interaction (e.g., adjusting the interactive feedbacks such as sound, vibration or colored lights to give to the children)

How do you get the innovative solution to reach the target audience? Please elaborate on the your go to market strategy and which geographies do you currently work in and what are your future plans for marketing your innovation.

We are still in the prototyping phase. Since we would like to reach more customer possible to respond their needs, internet marketing could be the best solution.

What is the potential impact of the innovative solution on the lives of the target audience? Please elaborate by providing statistics of the current impact and the potential impact.

The motivation to create the TW (“+me” for a first implementation of the prototype) begins with a scenario that happens many times as part of a long, sometimes heart-breaking, story of children with autism having difficulties to communicate with their family. In this scenario, the families feel compelled to remove their son or daughter from common social environments and restrain them in places where the children’s behavior can be better controlled. So, to enhance the motivation of the child to communicate, to improve his/her basic interaction skills with others, and to extend the child’s ability to communicate and play with others while keeping engaged in every-day activities (“+me” has an ordinary-life “embedded” nature) can be possible through the TWs.

Stories of how the Innovation has touched lives.

We hope that the autistic children can communicate their inner voice with the outer world through the TWs and they can be integrated into society.

Links to a few videos about the innovation: