When someone suffers from autism, a psychological wall blocks them from both verbally and physically communicating their emotions. Although they may appear withdrawn on the outside, inside, they may feel overcome with anxiety. By measuring the electrical conductivity of skin, Rosalind Picard’s Q Sensor breaks through that wall, giving autism sufferers and those who work with them the ability to interact in a clearer, healthier manner.
"There seems to be this mismatch between when they look quiet on the outside, yet their heart might be racing. And it’s just that moment, when they’re shutting down to protect themselves, when a good-intentioned teacher might come up and say, 'Hey, I know you can do it,' and that’s when a kid could start melting down and lashing out," said Picard, co-director of the MIT Autism Communication Technology Initiative. "The conductance response lets us see what’s on the inside."
The Q Sensor takes advantage of the body’s natural response to stress. Before people start to sweat, the glands in the skin begin filling with water. Even at this moment, pre-stress response changes the conductivity of skin enough for the Q Sensor to notice, Picard said.
When wearing the device, people on the autism spectrum can monitor, communicate and manage their own stress levels before they reach problematic levels.
The Q Sensor takes the form of a wristband, similar in size and shape to a watch. It sends real-time data on stress levels, which appear as a moving line similar to an EKG that measures heart rate, to laptops or phones.
Teachers working with a class of special-needs students could have a laptop with the readout for all their students, allowing them to maintain order in the classroom, or autism sufferers can monitor the readout themselves, giving them a tool to gauge their own anxiety and behavior.
Like many innovative scientists, Picard tested the device on herself. As a painfully shy child, Picard would often cover her eyes when walking into a crowded room. During the device’s development, she wore a prototype Q Sensor to a party, and found that even though she felt more at ease, her body still had the same fight-or-flight reaction.
Picard has spun off a company, Affectiva, to commercialize this technology. The initial run of devices will target the parents and teachers of autism spectrum children, but the ability of the Q Sensor to measure unconscious levels of excitement also makes it useful in market research applications.
"If you put yourself in the shoes of the person on the autism spectrum, many of them just want to reduce their anxiety stress and sensory challenges," Picard said.
"Anything we can do to give them more control over that is helpful."
To see the Affectiva Q Sensor in action, view the video below.