Jim gave a presentation describing his proposed research work on assisting emotion regulation in young persons with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is an Autism Spectrum Condition that causes impairments in communication, social interaction and empathy. Rigid and repetitive behaviours are also characteristic features of the condition, though levels of impairment vary widely and can change with age and environment.

Living in a world that often seems baffling and inimical to their needs places great demands on the emotion regulation abilities of persons with AS. However the impairments of the condition make emotion regulation very challenging. Persons with AS often have difficulty recognizing or describing their feelings and deficits in the social sphere make managing stressful situations problematic.

The goal of the research is develop a system to help young people with AS better manage their emotions. The proposed system will gauge the young person’s emotional state from physiological data (a wireless electrodermal activity sensor housed in a wrist band), user input via a “stress button” and keyed input of emotional states, and contextual information e.g. from the phone diary or GPS data.

Proposed Phone App structure

The phone app will process the captured data and trigger an alert when it detects a problem may be developing. The app will then offer personalised options to help manage the situation e.g. suggest taking ‘time out’, launching a favourite mobile game as a calming exercise or discreetly texting the teacher warning of a developing problem. More advanced options such as CBT support or suggestions to deal with specific situations could be added later. Manual triggering, giving the young person immediate access to the options, will be supported. The app will be designed to make setting detection thresholds and options as simple as possible for the user. Research questions might include:

  • can the system reliably detect heightened states of physiological arousal?
  • can the system help young people with AS better manage their emotions?
  • can the system be designed to be used by a range of young people with AS?
  • what impact does the system have on the lives’ of users and their families?

A lively discussion followed the presentation with many interesting comments and suggestions. Liz asked about the age range of the intended users (it’s 12 years and above) and pointed out that, for younger children with AS, the onset of a meltdown can be very rapid, allowing little time for an effective intervention. Liz also suggested initially targeting the development of the system for a particular situation or scenario. There was some discussion as to whether the alert alone might be a sufficient intervention. Ben wondered how minimal the system could be while still having a positive impact, suggesting a study with 3 system setups:

  1. a non-functioning “stress button”
  2. a stress button that triggers an alert
  3. a stress button that triggers an alert and offers options to help with emotion regulation.

Liz cautioned that there may be significant changes in the emotional lives study participants over a short period of time. There was some discussion of the possible use of the stress button for ‘stimming’, in a way reminiscent of the children recorded ‘bubble popping’ in videos from the ECHOES project.