Kansas State University students and Heartspring, a center for children with special needs, are working together to develop devices to help improve the quality of life for those with developmental disabilities.
The goal of the research is to eventually be able to use physiological data – like heart rates and breathing rates – to predict when special needs children will have seizures, injure themselves or act aggressively, said Gary Singleton, president and CEO of Heartspring, which offers day classes.
“Some of our staff have intuitive feelings when behaviors will occur, but this would change the paradigm for children with autism that instead of reacting to a behavior we can know what causes it and be proactive,” Singleton said.
Heartspring mostly works with children who have severe autism and other mental disabilities at its facility at 8700 East 29th Street North. About 50 students live on the campus and come from around the country, but Heartspring also offers therapy sessions for children who live with their families.
K-State professors are teaching design courses with engineering students to develop devices and software for Heartspring’s children, most of whom are autistic and nonverbal.
A $125,000 grant from the National Science Foundation is funding the work, including the cost of materials. The grant runs through fall of 2016, but the professors are looking for additional funding to continue the program, said Punit Prakash, assistant professor electrical and computer engineering at K-State.
One of the projects they hope to test with Heartspring students in the next year is a series of sensors built into a mattress that can track breathing rates, heart rates and movement of children while they are sleeping and alert caregivers to tossing and turning, seizure or bedwetting.
The system would be less obtrusive than traditional sleep monitoring that requires electrodes, which are more distracting to children with autism.
“The next step is for (K-State) to come down and install the suite and computer with beds and try it here to see how it works and if it picks up the kind of information we want it to,” Singleton said.
“Once in place, we can look at what the data means practically for students. Right off the bat, it will help our evening and overnight staff to monitor students in their rooms for movements, bedwetting, if the student is out of bed, from a central monitoring system.”
Currently, staff do hourly physical checks on the students, but the new technology would be less disruptive for the students.
“The motivation for that project came from (studying) the quality of sleep the special needs children have, ‘Are they sleeping well at night?’ and get objective numbers to quantify the quality of sleep,” Prakash said.
“The following day in the classroom, we can see if they’re doing well or have trouble doing well because of their condition or because they didn’t get a good night’s rest.”
The idea for the program started about seven or eight years ago when Singleton met K-State associate professor Steven Warren, who was doing physiological monitoring of cattle, at an engineering conference in New York.
Eventually, they realized that physiological monitoring of those with special needs could lead to a whole new area of research, Singleton said.
Singleton also hopes they will be able to develop wearable devices for the children, like a bracelet or T-shirt, to help monitor their behaviors, heart beat and respiratory function, among other things.
Eventually enough data could be collected that the computerized devices could portend the onset of a seizure or other issues.
That would be accomplished by using the data to create algorithms that would be reliable predictors of seizures, self-injury or aggression, Singleton said.
“I don’t know whether we can find those algorithms, but I’m hopeful,” he said.
“It’s an emerging area as sensors become cheaper to manufacture and easier to embed within clothing or daily environments like beds, and computing power is now fairly cheap,” Prakash said.
The next step is for the K-State program to develop additional prototypes and begin collecting the scientific data from the prototypes for studies, Prakash said.
Currently, Heartspring staff inputs data into an iPod whenever a child injures himself or is aggressive to track behaviors over time, but it would be more objective if the data from wearable devices went automatically to the monitoring system, Singleton said.
Heartspring was recently awarded a patent for its iPod data collection system, Singleton said.