Project Invent at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas image
Credit: Denton Record-Chronicle

10 students in the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS) at the University of North Texas (UNT) are creating wearable assistive technology devices to improve the lives of people with autism spectrum disorder.

Called Project Invent, the UNT program consists of two teams containing five students in each, which is led by TAMS senior Rik Patnaik.

Both TAMS teams are attempting to design wearable technology that could improve the everyday lives of people with autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger’s syndrome.

The first team, Project Lyra, is working to create a bracelet that can record interactions with first responders – people whose job entails being the first at the scene of an emergency – through a radio-frequency identification system.

Team members spoke to UNT police about the challenges of approaching people with autism spectrum disorder and worked alongside Larry Dierker, 24, who has Asperger’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and foetal alcohol syndrome.

The TAMS students also hope to have a database accessible to first responders with information about how the individual wearing the bracelet might react in certain unordinary situations.

Project Lyra hopes that its wearable bracelet could provide important background information about the wearer to first responders in the future.

Larry’s mother, Nancy Dierker, explained how her son has been stopped by police officers occasionally and although he usually likes the interaction at first, he can run into difficulty communicating with law enforcement. She added that he also sometimes has trouble following what the police are saying.

“What he hears sometimes is not exactly what is said,” Nancy told the Denton Record-Chronicle.

She added that Larry can become standoffish or defensive with officers: “When all they were doing is asking something like, ‘What are you doing out here tonight?’ in a very calm tone.”

If police were able to scan a low-profile bracelet and see how Larry might react in stressful situations, potential problems could be avoided for all involved, stresses Project Lyra.

With an understanding that sensory overload is a serious concern for people with autism spectrum disorder, Rik’s second team, Project Cape, is designing a specialised hoodie to serve as a portable, on-demand relaxation system.

Based on weighted vests used to treat hyperactivity and anxiety, the hooded sweatshirt would have a controlled system of drawstrings throughout that, when activated, would tighten and create the sensation of additional weight.

Shaurya Kumar, Programming and Engineering Member for Project Cape, explained: “For example, on a subway, all these lights and sounds going on, if someone with autism was to experience sensory overload, drawstring on, hoodie on and they would be in a safe, secluded environment by themselves at any point in time. We also want it to have iPod functionality.”

Having iPod functionality would be significant for Larry, outlines Project Cape, as he frequently listens to music to destress.

Nancy said that her son has never worn weighted vests because he’s fashion-conscious. She thinks that he would much more likely wear a hoodie as people would just view it as item of clothing.

Rik hopes that both teams will be able to travel to pitch their creations to potential investors at Stanford University’s design school in May 2019. If they secure funding, the inventions could help people on a much larger scale.

Most of the fundraising is online, but the teams are also attending a few events, including the inaugural TAMS fair, in order to present their work, recruit new members and get some donations.

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