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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:

https://news.northeastern.edu/2019/08/21/this-wearable-device-predicts-aggressive-outbursts-in-people-with-autism-a-minute-in-advance/

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. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

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?

Struggling to remain objective, 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 potentially dangerous was going on behind them. So, obviously such a device could be beneficial, but the question remains – why focus on autistic children?

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 stigmatizes autistic people as being 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:

https://www.ibtimes.com/scientist-creates-wristband-tracks-autism-aggressive-outburst-2816728

 

 

 

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