Many autistic people experience difficulty expressing their emotions. This can result in increased anxiety, depression, anger, and physical health problems. Research shows that autistic adults are significantly more likely to experience depression and anxiety than their peers.
Imagine a future where technology can help people regulate their emotions and alert them to sensory overload before they feel overwhelmed.
More and more technological solutions are being developed for autistic people that aim to help people regulate their emotions. And some autistic people are adapting technology like digital heart rate monitors to try to track their stress levels.
Many studies have explored autistic people’s use of wearable technology, such as smart watches, virtual reality (VR), or brain-computer interfaces (BCI), to regulate their emotions. BCIs are a direct communication path between the electrical activity of the brain and an external device, most commonly a computer or robotic limb.
speaking to the community
But before our study, no one asked the autistic community for their opinion on how useful the technology is. Poor usability is a long-standing problem for autistic users of this technology because developers are not aware of their needs. A recent study found that only 10% of wearable technologies for autistic people addressed their needs and 90% saw autistic traits as shortcomings that needed to be corrected.
Our recent study explored the autistic community’s thoughts about any technology they have previously used to help them regulate their emotions and their views about what they need from technology.
Thirty-four autistic people and their allies (family, health and social care professionals, and university staff) participated in focus groups. We present information on how emotional regulation technology could be used. For example, smart watches that detect signs of physiological stress and prompt users to initiate coping techniques.
We found that the autistic community was interested in using technology to help regulate their emotions, but it was often too costly, difficult to use without training, and not well suited to their needs. The results of our focus group showed that wearable technologies could be especially beneficial for people with autism, if they are involved in the design process.
life with autism
One participant shared how her daughter deals with emotional challenges: “She looks perfectly fine and is behaving perfectly well. Except she isn’t. She hides it so well, the anxiety and all that – we have no idea! Sometimes insistence can lead to a big blowout.”
Meanwhile, care staff talked about how important it was to understand how autistic people feel: “You want to get in there before the behavior starts. Before it escalates. We could go in earlier to offer quiet, a distraction. For other people it is abstinence. Give them their own space.”
Another keeper said: “We know there may be a pattern, but we just can’t see it.”
Participants told us that technology could make a difference. A relative of an autistic person said: “I would like something… that he can self-regulate, tell people how he feels about himself. Something that is an app that somehow connects with a color, so you can pick a picture that says how you feel and people know that without it being a big song and dance.”
Some autistic participants felt there is a lack of support for those with higher IQs. One told us: “You feel like you are walking between the two worlds almost. You are not very severe. So you’re not at that point on the spectrum where you need as much support as you would if you were.”
Help me, don’t fix me
Most research has been based on outdated theories about autism, such as the idea that it is a medical illness that can be cured or treated. Recent advances in the neurodiversity movement have generated a call for autism research to focus on empowering autistic people and their unique communication styles rather than trying to “fix” them.
Autistic participants agreed that technology designs should promote independence, rather than try to mask autism.
Many participants were reluctant to use technology due to a lack of confidence in their ability to use it, especially in community care settings. Other barriers included cost or lack of knowledge about existing technology.
The results of our study emphasized the importance of strategies that take into account an individual’s life goals. Although a lot of money is spent on the development of new technologies, researchers and healthcare organizations often do not take into account how they will be implemented in practice.
As one autistic person said: “If you’re going to do something for someone, ask them what they want. Don’t spit something out and go, this is what I did. The number of articles where people claimed to have done something for learning disabilities. Have you ever tried it? Have you ever used it on someone?
Technology companies must create their products together with the autistic community. And products should aim to adapt the environment according to individual needs, rather than trying to change the person.
Autism is simply a different way of seeing the world. This new approach would not only help develop helpful technology-based support strategies, it would help create more inclusive environments for all.