Jeroen De Busser is a 21 year old autistic Software Engineering M.Sc. student from Antwerp, Belgium. He is prone to sensory overload where he loses the ability to form and sometimes, even understand speech. When he couldn’t find a way to effectively communicate and get help during a meltdown episode, he used his software talent to create an app for it! Now it’s free in the app store for everyone.
What inspired you to develop the Emergency Chat app?
In December last year, I had one of the worst meltdowns of my life. It was the first time ever that I went completely nonverbal(including the inability to parse voice), and it was really scary. Even after the meltdown itself subsided, I was still shaky and nonverbal for another 15 minutes, during which my friends could do nothing but just sit silently beside me. Having them that worried (it was the first meltdown they ever saw, so I completely understand their concern) and not being able to communicate was frustrating. I eventually managed through gesturing to convey the need to remove me from the overloading situation.
[Tweet “21 yr old software engineering student creates a communication app for #autistic meltdowns”]
Back home, I thought about ways I could’ve dealt with the situation better, and two-way communication via text came to mind. I started searching the Play Store for chat apps, but none that I could find allowed for two persons to type on the same device. Since I’m a CS student, I decided to create my own at that point. It took me a few days (as opposed to a couple of hours) because of my lack of knowledge on Android development, but that also gave me more time to think about more ways to make it useful. This is how the splash screen entered the picture: if I were to meltdown in public without a friend nearby, I could have a simple message for someone to read first to get an idea of what’s going on instead of having to explain everything in the chat and losing precious time.
So if someone is having a meltdown or panic attack and cannot speak, how do they use the app?
Pull out their phone, open the app and give their phone with their personalized message to the person they want to communicate with for help (whether it be a friend/family member, EMT/officer or a stranger). That person can then read the message to get a grip on the situation and continue to the chat to ask further questions. When the absolute necessary things are taken care of, the chat can be used for further communication if their verbal abilities have not yet returned.
Have you used it? How did it help?
I have once, at home, when I got into sensory overload and wasn’t able to take the steps to get out of that room and do them in the right order. I opened the app, gave my phone to my sister (who didn’t need the splash screen) and we used the chat to talk about what was going on. She was able to get me out of that room to get my laptop where I could type way faster to communicate with her further.
What kind of feedback have you received from people who have used it?
Because of the only recent (one week) publicity of the app in media outlets, I don’t have many use stories, but many people have expressed gratitude, “why did this not exist earlier”, and similar sentiments. It’s all been very positive, overwhelmingly so.
Do you have any advice for parents about their children who experience meltdowns?
I don’t have any good advice to give, except to keep calm and not stop/restrain them unless they’re doing something that actively harms themselves or other people. Especially don’t start to yell at them to calm down, since that will probably have the opposite effect. In a meltdown all sensory experiences are even more raw than normal and many autistics are extremely sensitive to tone of voice already. Many autistic advocates have blogged and vlogged about this way better than I ever could, so here’s a good video to get you started:
Amythest Schaber (from the blog neurowonderful) explains what meltdowns are and how you could help someone during one. That video also has a lot of good resource links on meltdowns in the video description.
Where can people get the app and what devices does it work on?
Do you have any final thoughts about your app that you’d like to share?
The app is currently still under active development, with a large update planned by the end of August/mid-September based on user feedback. This will include the ability to have multiple launchers, each for a different splash screen, a different kind of splash screen and the ability for users on Android 4.2 and up to launch from their lock screen (up to android 5.0, where Google removed the functionality).
Find more information on the Emergency Chat App Facebook Page.