Thursday, April 25, 2013

Where's my jetpack?

Alan Bean, Apollo XII
On July 20th, 1969, we put a man on the moon.

I had green army men, but I also had little plastic astronauts.  I built models of Saturn rockets and watched The Jetsons, Lost in Space, and Star Trek.

Growing up in rural Tennessee, all that seemed far away, but I read sci-fi with a passion and battled imaginary talking apes across the rolling hills.  In 1977,  Star Wars was a dream come alive.

 In January of 1986, I was in my senior year of college, studying mechanical engineering in Houston.  I was walking from the dining hall past the TV in the commons when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up.

The next 20 years saw revolutionary changes in technology, just not the space cowboy dreams of my youth.  We got the internet, cell phones, wireless, iPhones,  amazing 3-d videogames, and MMORPGs.  Our U.S. healthcare system may be messed up, but we have mapped the human genome.

2001 was a remarkable year not because we sent a spaceship to Jupiter to undergo the next stage of human evolution, but mostly because my first son was born.  9/11 changed a lot of things too, among other things, pushing us closer to 1984.

In 2011, my eldest and I went to Florida to watch the last space shuttle launch.  For me, that felt like the end of the future I'd been imagining.  Although I'd rather see a public effort, I do take heart from the amazing exploits of Elon Musk and others.

Here we are in 2013.  We don't have jet-packs or flying cars, but in another 10 years, we may have cars that drive themselves.  Nobody's living on the moon, but we do have an International Space Station.  On the whole, mankind is becoming more peaceable and violent crime is down.  Our planet is connected in many, many ways, and when some outlier goes berserk and does something atrocious, it gets seen, recorded, and shared instantly, and society responds.  Through ubiquitous images from cellphone cameras, investigators can travel back in time and find out who the culprits are.

We have some pretty incredible technology.  It's not the stuff I was expecting as a kid, but it's still cool.  We don't have gigantic spaceships, but we do have infrastructures (internet, wireless, GPS) and technologies (touchscreens/GUIs, programmable electronics, cheap memory, cheap sensors, etc.) that can be put together to do some astonishing things.

Here's the important part:

A local company here in Utah is reaching out to the autism community to ask what they can do to help us.  They specialize in home automation, and are looking for problems to be solved.  

According to my source, they  "donate a significant amount of money to Utah disability programs, is (sic) interested in developing new technology to help families with children with disabilities.  They have also expressed commitment to not only developing the products but providing them free of charge to many Utah families"

I've got a few major worries that technology might be able to address:
  • wandering - My son is 5 right now, and loves to "go walkabout".  He would see nothing wrong with doing it by himself.  He often plays in the back yard while I do dishes, cook dinner, etc.  In fact, he's doing it right now.  I would love to have my phone alert me when he's beyond a certain distance away from me.  I don't know what you could attach to him - he loves to be barefoot, so you can't stick it on a shoe.  He won't wear a hat, bracelet, or necklace.  He does like a good chewy tube though - we try to attach them to zippers and such, otherwise he'll chew on his clothes.  Maybe that would work.
  • sleeping through the night - Ben woke up at 2:30 Saturday night, and I couldn't get him back to sleep.  He had another night a few days later that was similar.  I think most kids have some sleep issues, but they're worse with ASD kids, and sleep deprivation is a major cause of stress for their parents.  I've been thinking about purchasing a night vision camera to try to figure out what sets him off.  We live near a busy street, so it could be noise-related...better include audio.  It might also be that his room gets too cold sometimes - we live in an old house and he likes to throw his blankets off.
  • incidents at school - my son goes to a school where I have a whole lot of faith in his teachers and all the staff.  They are some of the most caring and patient people I've ever met (and I'm old - see above).  We won't be at that school forever, and hope to get him in a program alongside neurotypical kids.  Ben is making progress with his language, but until he can really talk for himself, I would love to have some sort of "black box" - audio and/or video to let me see what happened to him during the day.  
  • drowning - it's kind of tied into wandering.  We're doing our best to teach him to swim, but he's not there yet.  I don't have a clue what technological solution you could do for this, but you asked.
  • potty training - I don't know what kind of magic device would make this easier, but I know people would buy it.
Ahead full speed, Mr. Sulu
My kid's only 5.  I don't know what sort of challenges lie ahead for us.  

I can imagine a teenage or adult Ben having access to a "panic button", like OnStar for autistics.  Maybe it could connect him to volunteers (maybe fellow autistics) who could talk him through whatever is happening.

I'd love to hear from people with experience beyond age 5 - autistics or their families.  What sort of gadgetry would help your lives?

Extra credit:
Check out Earth by David Brin.  Back in 1990, he predicted (from wikipedia):


  1. This is a fun topic, and I find myself hard pressed to come up with anything.

    The technology you described above (" I would love to have my phone alert me when he's beyond a certain distance away from me. ") already exists commercially. I looked into it for Lily. Although she's not an elopement risk...I'd just feel better if my essentially non-verbal daughter could be located if someone decided to take her without me knowing about it. You know? Anyway, they have GPS trackers you can buy for your kids (with bracelets) that allow you to set perimeters on a map, and send alert emails/whatever when your kid's signal leaves certain areas or ENTERS certain areas.

    I love that idea. I just want it to be a little less inconvenient (Lily might wear the bracelet, but really, it could be in ANYthing..don't tell me you can't shrink that tracker down to the size of a pea).

  2. ya - i see a few of those here:

    i like that one of them has a "help" button.

    i was just thinking "hey, it would be cool to be able to issue a mini-amber alert" if we got separated in a crowd. went to wikipedia and read "AMBER Alert has also teamed up with Google[8] and Facebook [9]to relay information regarding an AMBER Alert to an ever growing demographic." that's pretty cool. i think you have to sign up to receive them. will investigate.


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