Brent Chase knows the pain and helplessness of watching a loved one go through a physically and emotionally damaging autistic meltdown.
Chase, a master’s student in biomedical engineering, describes a meltdown as “an intense response to an overwhelming situation. It’s like an extreme anxiety attack — times a million. It’s a hurricane, tornado, blizzard, end-of-the-world situation where everyone can be a victim. You want to help them, but you can only do so much.”
Chase’s younger brother, Alec, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when he was 3 years old. Alec’s meltdowns, Chase says, have kept him from achieving professional and social independence.
Alec is the inspiration for Chase’s Products for Autism Lifestyle (PAL), maker of smart apparel for people with autism spectrum disorder. He and a team of colleagues at Northwestern and the Rochester Institute of Technology, his undergrad alma mater, are working to develop a shirt that collects biometric data to help warn loved ones about an imminent meltdown.
The shirt includes biosensors — about half the size of a deck of cards — to measure stress levels through physiological data such as heart rate. When certain signals are detected, the sensors send information to a mobile app that alerts the person and their parents or caretakers of the possibility of a meltdown. Caregivers can then try to mitigate the effects — remind the person to breathe and remove him or her from the situation. People who are affected by autism and their caregivers can, over time, begin to understand what triggers a meltdown and proactively avoid such situations.
For people affected by autism, Chase hopes his wearables will help decrease the number of meltdowns, promote self-regulation and, in the long term, increase opportunities to secure employment and become more independent.
The PAL team is continuing to develop hardware for the biometric sensors. PAL, a subsidiary of Gaia Wearables, is a resident team at The Garage, Northwestern’s student startup incubator. Chase, CEO of Gaia Wearables, hopes to release the biometric shirt by early 2020.
“We hope that our product has a big impact, but this is also a call to arms for other people and organizations to innovate and design with purpose,” Chase says.