Software helps kids with autism track anxiety Most children can recall a time when they were so nervous their heart pounded. But children with autism may have more difficulty recognizing the symptoms of anxiety— or communicating how they feel to others. “Research shows that 40 per cent of children with autism have elevated levels of anxiety or at least one anxiety disorder, but they may have difficulty identifying the symptoms,” says Azadeh Kushki (above), a scientist in the Bloorview Research Institute. Those include a racing heart, shortness of breath, feelings of dread and hyper-vigilance. So Kushki is working on a software that will alert kids to changes in their heart rate—one of the most consistent markers of anxiety. The anxiety meter is a tiny microprocessor worn on an arm band that connects to sensors on the chest. Using a smart phone or tablet, children track changes in their heart rate
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based on the movement of a white circle. When the circle sits in the green range, it signifies relaxation. As it moves into the red area, it identifies arousal and signals the need for the child to apply a calming strategy. Kushki plans to test the device in a randomized trial in Holland Bloorview’s Facing Your Fears program for youth with autism this year. This cognitive behavioural program has been adapted with increased emphasis on visual information. Children practise identifying emotions, rating them, and using strategies to manage them. “We know anxiety has a negative impact on physical health and mental health,” Kushki says. “It can increase the risk of other psychiatric disorders like depression or substance abuse and cause difficulties in school and social isolation.” Kushki says the device may eventually be incorporated into a “smart fabric” shirt and, in addition to tracking a child’s anxiety, guide the child on practical calming strategies.