It’s not clear why, but autism among American kids has grown to near-epidemic proportions in recent years — to the point where experts estimate that one in 150 eight-year-olds in the US has an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, with either mild or more severe manifestations of the condition.
Doron Somer and Nery Ben-Azar, both of whom have had personal experience with autism in their families, are as puzzled as anyone else about the whys of autism. But, instead, they decided to focus on the whats of the disease, as in “what we could do about it,” Somer told The Times of Israel.
“To keep autistic kids safe, even when they are grown, was the main motivation for the development of our AngelSense device, which is specifically made to keep track of autistic children.”
One of the biggest challenges in raising autistic kids is keeping them safe physically. Naturally curious, like all children, autistic kids want to get out and see the world, but many end up getting lost — “wandering,” as the National Autism Association calls it. More than one-third of these wanderers can’t communicate their name, address or phone number, and two out of three of them have had a close call with traffic, parents say. One out of six has been subject to sexual abuse. And many never make it back home; the death rate for autistic kids is 10 times that of non-ASD children — and 95% of those deaths are by drowning, according to statistics.
That unfortunate fact was driven home for many New Yorkers in 2014, when the remains of a 14-year-old autistic boy, Avonte Oquendo, were found in the East River. The grisly discovery was made weeks after Oquendo walked out of his Long Island city school, not far from the river — and after a weeks-long manhunt yielded no trace of him.
For these reasons, keeping track of autistic kids — even when they are indoors, in a supposedly safe environment such as school — is a top priority, explained Somer. “But there were really no tools that were properly equipped to do that. Each of the available solutions had a major drawback, which is why we developed AngelSense.”
The AngelSense device is a small tracker that can be attached anywhere on a child’s clothing — preferably in an out-of-the-way place, such as a front pocket or on a belt, where the child is less likely to notice it, and thus less likely to try to remove it. The device contains a GPS chip, a cellular phone network connection, a camera and a microphone, and all these tools are in constant use when a child is on the move.
Photos, locations, and events are uploaded automatically to a server, where parents can look at them in real time and receive notifications on their smartphones telling them exactly where their child is at any time. Along with the device, AngelSense offers tracking services at the cost of 150 shekels ($40) a month.
There are many GPS trackers on the market, some of them specifically geared to keeping track of kids, and a few with cameras and microphones as well. But the AngelSense tracker contains a number of features specifically designed to meet the needs of autistic kids. For example, said Somer, the device that is attached to the child’s clothing can only be removed by the use of a special key, which the parents keep.
“You can’t give autistic kids a wristwatch,” the form factor many of the kid-oriented GPS trackers use. “Just the presence of a watch is overstimulating, and they will get it off or destroy it very quickly, continued Somer.”
The most important AngelSense innovation, however, is the device’s ability to provide location data from inside buildings, vehicles, etc. “Other GPS tracking solutions provide a geofence, with warnings generated when a child goes out of the bounds of a specific geographic area,” Somer went on. “But that doesn’t really help in the case of autistic kids, who can get into trouble even in supposedly ‘safe’ areas. With AngelSense, parents get alerted as soon as kids are on the move, so they can see online if they’ve gone into an area of the school building where they are not supposed to be.”
The system does this by employing advanced algorithms that perform analytics on personal movement. “GPS analytics are usually for navigation, with applications measuring and analyzing how users move from point A to point B,” said Somer. “But as is well known, GPS only works outdoors, when there is a line-of-sight to the satellites that are used to determine location. In order for our solution to be effective, we had to make sure that we could track kids indoors, where they spend most of their time, and that required an advanced big-data analytics system. It’s really the heart of our solution.”
A recent incident reported by one of the thousands of people using AngelSense illustrates the importance of personal tracking analytics. “We had a case where a little girl was tracked while on her school bus, but the tracker indicated that the bus had stopped off for a significant amount of time off the side of the road,” reported Somer. “After investigating, the parents discovered that their daughter had been raped by the bus driver — and that is something they would never have been able to discover without the movement-by-movement tracking AngelSense provides.”
AngelSense also seeks to help parents of autistic kids become part of a support community — and even earn some money. “Many families who are raising autistic kids feel isolated and harried, because they need to dedicate themselves full-time to taking care of their child,” said Ben-Azar. “And some of them are in financial straits because they cannot work. My sister, for example, was a professional counselor, and she had to quit her job to be available for her autistic son.”
To help with both problems, AngelSense has set up a help center for parents who are using the device — staffed by parents who are customers as well. “We picked some of the most tech-savvy users to learn the ins and outs of the device, and they are now available to take phone calls from parents who need help and guidance on how to use AngelSense, and even for advice on how to deal with a specific issue related to their children that is not related to the device,” explained Ben-Azar.
“Our objective is to build a community to help parents and become the go-to source for information on dealing with autistic children — as well as helping parents who would like to, or need to, go back to work,” he added.
For Somer, as well as for Ben-Azar, the commitment to helping autistic kids and their parents is personal. Along with his partner, Somer also has a family member who has autism — his son. “My son Itamar is 18 now, but he is an eternal three year old,” said Somer “He’s growing up, and we know we can’t keep him by our side forever — and we won’t be here forever to take care of him. Autistic kids, and adults, are easy to take advantage of, and in fact my own son suffered abuse at the hands of a supposed caregiver.”
What happens to kids like Itamar when they grow up? Many end up in group homes, where resources to care for them are limited. But many others remain at home, isolated, because there are no programs for them at all beyond adolescence. With the AngelSense device, said Somer, kids like Itamar have many more options.
But in their efforts to help others, Somer and Ben-Azar stumbled upon a technology that could make them very rich — the first personal analytics-based GPS tracking system that works indoors, a technology that is likely to interest retailers, mall owners, public transportation systems that manage subways, and many more. “We know there is a huge potential for this, and we have been speaking to a large US company about this aspect of our technology,” said Somer.
But for now, Somer and Ben-Azar prefer to concentrate on helping autistic kids; the market is huge and growing. The device has been in trial use in Israel for the past year and a half. And, earlier this year, it made its debut in the US — where it already has thousands of users, all garnered by word of mouth.
Now, AngelSense is set to spread its wings, and Somer believes that the company can have 100,000 subscribers by the end of next year, considering the fact that the market for the product is now estimated to be at 4 million — and, unfortunately, growing daily. “We see helping these kids as a calling, and we’re proud of what we’re doing,” related Somer.
“Besides, working with autistic kids is one of the most challenging jobs anywhere. If we can succeed at this, we will definitely be able to succeed at the easy jobs, like tracking what shoppers are doing at the mall.”