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Upstate researchers tackle toilet training for autistic children

Universtiy of Rochester
Mruzek description.mp3
Listen to Dan Mruzek explain what a standard day of toilet training would look like using this technology.

Researchers in upstate New York have developed a wearable sensor system that will help toilet train autistic children. The device, created at the University of Rochester, involves a moisture pager that can connect to a smartphone app and alert caregivers to accidents.

“It seems like something that you would think already exists, and it doesn’t,” says Stephen McAleavey, a biomedical engineering professor, and part of the team that developed the technology.

“So the goal with this was to develop a wireless device that could be used to monitor children – for when they’re having an accident - and to try to make it as easy to use for the parents or the caregivers as possible.”

How it works

A small module, about the size of the unlock buttons on your car keys, snaps into place on a disposable sensor – basically a commercial panty liner with conductive thread sewn in.This is then placed in a child’s underwear and connected via bluetooth to an app on an iPhone.

“When the child wets it, the circuit is formed, the Bluetooth module sends an alert to the iPhone and that produces a tone, it records when the child had the accident so that others can keep a log of their toilet training progress," McAleavey explains.

This could help caregivers and clinicians tailor the toilet training process to each individual child, says McAleavey’s colleague Dan Mruzek.

“A curriculum that uses a moisture pager like we’ve developed, might increase the rate of progress, give parents and children a sense of progress along the way and lead to lasting results," Mruzek says. "And that’s a quality of life issue, most certainly.”

Mruzek says motivation is also an important part of toilet training, but it can be harder with autistic children to determine which rewards will spur behavior modification.

But, the app has that covered too.

When a child successfully makes it to the bathroom, caregivers can log the incident at the touch of a button, and a reward screen appears.

From that screen the children or caregivers can launch a favorite video, Youtube clip, game, song or even choose a picture of a snack that’s on hand.

“That option actually gives the child an interface and a method of communication to select what kind of reward they want, and hopefully that will reinforce the behavior of going to the bathroom," says Mruzek.

University of Rochester student Dan Hassin developed the app. He says it allows caregivers in a classroom setting to monitor several devices separately on their phone.

It also lets caregivers add notes and comments, has an option for voice dictation and allows logs to be emailed directly to a clinician, Hassin says.

Co-creator Dan Mruzek says this is important because it allows clinicians to give feedback and support on a child’s progress.

“One of the things we find with toilet training, as well as some other kinds of behavior change opportunities with children with autism, is it’s very easy for all of us to become discouraged," he says.

Mruzek says their system would allow clinicians to reach out to parents who might be struggling.

The team recently received a grant from the Autism Treatment Network and will start pilot trials next month.

Mruzek and his colleagues say there could eventually be a market for this technology in other areas, including standard toilet training for young children.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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