A system that uses a digital wristband and a mobile app could someday predict future outbursts among children with autism, allowing family members and helpers to prevent and prepare for episodes.

“One of the problems when someone can’t tell you they’re distressed is these behaviors feel like they come completely out of the blue,” said Matthew Goodwin, a behavioral scientist at Northeastern University. “It’s about quality of life.”

Goodwin’s system uses a Fitbit-like device to monitor changes in the body. Once the mobile app has tracked each episode of aggression, an algorithm is used to predict behavior a minute into the future.

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But Goodwin hopes to develop the project into a more sophisticated tool using a new three-year U.S. Department of Defense grant of $775,000.

“We’ll look at more people for longer, and that’ll enable us to see if we can go further into the future,” said Goodwin, who has joint appointments at Northeastern’s Bouve College of Health Sciences and the College of Computer and Information Sciences.

The project has been about 15 years in the making. Goodwin started on it back when monitoring bodily activity meant using cumbersome electrodes and sensors.

Once technology caught up with Goodwin’s vision, he and his research team observed 20 children with autism over 87 hours, capturing 548 outbursts.

With the Department of Defense money, Goodwin and his team will use the technology to study about 200 children with autism.

Autism spectrum disorder causes a range of challenges with social interaction and communication, depending on the severity of the condition.

About 1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is little understanding of what causes it, and a dearth of research examining new ways to reduce problems associated with it, said Matthew Siegel, faculty scientist at Maine Medical Center Research Institute and co-principal investigator.

“These problem behaviors are bad, but many families can handle them and work with them if you know they’re coming,” Siegel said.

“But right now we’re mostly flying blind.”

The ultimate goal is to develop a system that would transmit an alert and allow time to prepare for episodes, he said.

“What we’re attempting to do is shift the paradigm of how we approach this,” Siegel said. “If you know something is coming, it opens up all these options to intervene.”

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