Philip K. Dick must be rolling in his grave with news that the US Department of Defense is funding research to predict autistic meltdowns before they happen. Much like his celebrated science fiction short story “The Minority Report”, adapted into an excellent Tom Cruise vehicle by Steven Spielberg, this wristband can warn parents and care-givers what an autistic child is about to do before it actually happens. If you’re thinking it’s about time that the DOD stepped in to control autistic children, I’m afraid your thoughts are not shared with me – or the Facebook posts registering equal amounts of shock, disbelief and disgust.
To quote the Northeastern University web site: “Northeastern behavioral science professor Matthew Goodwin and his team used biosensors—like the one pictured here—to measure movements, heart rate, skin surface temperature, and perspiration.” They go on to explain that: “This wearable device can predict aggressive outbursts in people with autism a minute in advance.” You can read the full article here:
Speaking as a former biologist, my alarm bells went off when I learnt that only a sample of 20 children have been studied, over the course of 87 hours; based on that, it was concluded that the device is “84 percent” accurate. It does not state where the children are from, or how they were chosen. I do not know if these results were peer reviewed before being released to the media. I cannot find a peer-reviewed, scholarly article on this device (if you find one, please let me know). I find it odd that this went to press so quickly. I did my Masters focusing on science communication; based on my findings, normally scientists are reluctant to share any research until all the results are in and it has been peer reviewed and agreed upon – a process that could take years. Perhaps autism is now so news worthy, a “hot button issue”, Goodwin’s work was rushed out to attract attention – and further research dollars? I guess I’ll have to wait for that scholarly, peer-review paper to answer my questions regarding the sampling technique. However, in the meantime, Goodwin mentions that “some parents” are already on board, regardless of the small sample size. Interestingly, there is NO evidence that Goodwin had engaged with the autistic community to gather the opinions and concerns of adults with autism – like me. In short, I think this device further stigmatizes us, adding more fear, paranoia, prejudice and misunderstanding to a world that already struggles to understand us.
If this wristband is actually going to be implemented, I’d argue you could just say “NO”. But I have to wonder why these wristbands weren’t initially developed for sociopaths, psychopaths and prison inmates? What about alcoholics, gang members and racists? Perhaps drug dealers, pimps and bullies? Road rage is an issue, so I think anyone driving a car should have one too. What if, after a 45 minute wait, your calamari arrives cold? Have I missed anyone?
Joking aside, I can see the value of this in many scenarios. Inmates could wear one as an early warning when something is about to happen in a chaotic, confusing environment. For example, a prison guard with their back turned would appreciate some sort of warning that something is going on behind them. I can think of one horrible scenario in particular that it would pay dividends. I saw an interview with a prison guard who spoke candidly about the dangers of opening a slot in the door to look in on the inmate, or deliver their food. He talked about being grabbed, struck or stabbed – which I figured could happen. But he also mentioned something far more insidious; it always stuck in my mind. He said that inmates collect their urine and feces in a pot. They let it fester. When a guard opens the slot to their cell, they fling the foul, toxic sludge at them. If the inmates where wearing these bracelets, alerting the guard that something was about to happen, then that particular slot could be given a pass, until things cooled down. So, obviously such a device could be beneficial, but the question remains – why focus on autistic children?
A major issue is the fact that not all meltdowns become visible, let alone threatening towards neurotypicals and their property; each autistic person is unique. Shaking and stimming, and/or just intense rumination, coupled with exhaustion and fatigue, are not threatening behaviors; but that’s how I may “meltdown” (and some autistic people may relate). Very rarely do I break anything; if I do it is my own property, I am always alone at the time – and I feel horrible afterwards. I never start fights, I abhor vandalism (even littering) and I avoid confrontations in general. I wonder – how often do neurotypical people smash things and start fights compared to autistic people?
I believe that such a monitoring device may make things far worst for autistic people. If this device was to be used, it may force them to bottle everything up – essentially an extension of applied behavior analysis (the infamous ABA); this is basically what I went through for most of my youth – forced to hide my autistic behaviors, although I was undiagnosed at the time, resulting with issues that still haunt me today. Perhaps the biggest question is: why is the DOD involved in this?
In my opinion, DOD involvement suggests that use of the wristband will eventually extend far beyond autistic children. I believe that the DOD was attracted to funding testing in an innocuous family setting, under the guise of helping children and parents, then move onto other … applications. However, apparently no one associated with this research predicted the angry response from autistic adults. Its creation stigmatized many of us as uncontrollable, unmanageable with undesirable traits. While I acknowledge that, if used properly, this wristband could be beneficial in certain circumstances, similar to Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report”, its use could prove problematic for everyone.
Note: the article that was originally posted in a Facebook group for autistic people can be viewed here: