Biosensors can help to improve Autism Diagnosis, Treatments

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New wearable technology devices could help determine the behaviors of people with autism and could also devise ways in which the disorder could be treated.

Self-harm and harm to others are two of the most worrisome behaviors of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

But what if you could predict these behaviors before they happen?

Advances in autism research and wearable biosensor technology are giving doctors new avenues to approach the disorder in a way that could have a significant impact on harmful behavior.

One of the agency’s recent key findings was that “nearly 28 percent of 8-year-old children” with the disorder can exhibit self-harming behavior.

Matthew Goodwin, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Northeastern University, tells Healthline that using data from wearable biosensors “can predict with about 79-80 percent accuracy based on the last three minutes of your physiology whether or not you are going to aggress to someone else or aggress to yourself” within the next minute.

The sensors are placed in various key locations on an ASD patient’s body. They take a variety of physiological and biometrical data.

Accelerometers placed on the wrist and arm track limb movement in three-dimensional space. Skin surface temperature, electrodermal activity (sweating), and heart rate give indications of the autonomic nervous system.

Currently, an ASD diagnosis relies on behavioral studies rather than physiology, but the data collected from these sensors has a myriad of applications.

In his presentation this week, Goodwin focused primarily on two applications for biosensor data in ASD patients.

The first of those applications is analyzing stereotypical motor movement — things like arm flapping, rocking back-and-forth, finger flicking — that are defining parts of ASD. Currently, the function of these movements is not entirely understood within the scientific community.

Goodwin suggests that these actions could be communicative. They could regulate stress or even help with proprioception, although none of this is certain. That is why more research is needed.

Autism envelopes a variety of symptoms and severities — which makes it difficult to treat.

Using biosensors to collect information may help to create better-tailored treatments for differing individuals within the autism spectrum.

Thomas Frazier, Ph.D., the chief science officer of advocacy group Autism Speaks, says, “I think this approach could be useful as a way to monitor treatment progress in clinical trials. More research may be needed to identify reliable epochs of data collection and sensitivity to change, but given what is written this could be a useful treatment tracking approach.”

Goodwin hopes to make the biometrical sensors available commercially. Unlike other sensors and wearable devices, these sensors are developed to be form-fitting in a way that is tolerable for those with ASD.

The devices, he says, have peer review in the medical community and “they are on the pathway to being certified as a medical device with FDA approval, but we are not there yet.”

“This idea that you can record biology and detect a departure in a normal signal, which is predictive of a future behavioral event that something bad is about to happen,” he said. “I think that would be a tremendous innovation if you could keep people, themselves, and those around them safer because we’re not caught off guard.”