3 July 2013 13:11

The first ever digital tool to enable people with autism to connect to their social network when they feel stressed has been invented by researchers.

It is estimated that around 500,000 people in the UK have autism, with a third of adults with the condition experiencing social and mental health problems due to a lack of support.

Many people on the autistic spectrum find difficulties in interacting with other people, which is why researchers have created a handheld tool to make it easier for them to communicate how they feel.

The Catalyst project brings together researchers and adults with autism to find out what they need and how it can be best developed.

Dr Will Simm said: “The idea is that the person with autism carries the device in their pocket and squeezes it hard if they feel stressed. It’s a discreet way of communicating anxiety and the device is connected to their social network.

“The device triggers mobile phone alerts and social network posts letting their family and friends know if they’re stressed so they can either go to help if they’re nearby or send a supportive text.”

The advantage of the digital tool is that it can also create an online map of people’s stress patterns so they can learn when and why they are most likely to feel anxious.

The prototype was developed after extensive consultation with the autism community, including people with the condition who said it was difficult to begin a conversation and ask for help.

One parent and carer of a young person with autism has welcomed the device.

“This would be great for peace of mind for a family as well as for the person carrying it. I'm particularly interested from the perspective of something for teens/young adults who want to be part of the mainstream world but who may need support in certain settings or at particular times, even if they don't want to be in the position of asking for it and certainly wouldn't admit to any difficulty.”

Thomas Lee of Autism Initiative said: “This whole process has clearly invigorated the individuals involved and also given them a sense of purpose, it relates to areas they recognise and has meaning that they can identify with - it is suggestive of the need for such innovation.”

Dr Maria Angela Ferrario said:”The technology is really the tip of the iceberg, the important aspect about this tool are the people that worked together to make it happen.”

The project is part of an ambitious £1.9m Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council project called Catalyst led by Professor Jon Whittle from Lancaster’s School of Computing and Communications. Catalyst is made up of series of short research ‘sprints’ designed to test the boundaries of existing communications technology and empower groups to change the world for the better.