Donors’ generosity leads to easing anxiety

You could call Jim and Mary Davie research assistants.

No, they don’t don lab coats or analyze data. But what they have done could help kids across Canada with autism.

Jim and Mary are long-time donors to Holland Bloorview, and in 2011 they committed $500,000 to establish the Junior Scientist position in the Bloorview Research Institute.

That gift has given Dr. Azadeh Kushki the chance to explore new technologies that could make a profound impact in how kids with autism manage their anxiety.

“I can’t say thank you enough,” said Dr. Kushki. “Without them I wouldn’t have a scientist position at Holland Bloorview.”

Designated donation

What motivated the Davies to be so generous?

“It was really just seeing the kind of work being done there, and feeling like this was something we’d really like to be involved with,” said Jim, who has supported Holland Bloorview since 2002 and served on the hospital’s Board, as well as several committees.

“We were encouraged to look at areas where we thought there was a particular need, one of which was autism research which hadn’t received much financial support, and so with that in mind, we directed our funds to that particular area,” added Jim.

From funding to finding solutions

Those funds helped Dr. Kushki develop the Anxiety Meter.

The Anxiety Meter is a digital tool that can be used with an iPad or tablet that can detect anxiety levels by monitoring a child’s heart rate.

“When you get anxious your heart rate changes significantly,” said Dr. Kushki.

Up to eighty-five per cent of children with autism experience significant anxiety. They experience excessive fears, obsessive worrying, phobias and/or sleep or eating disturbances. Anxiety may also worsen some of the concerns associated with autism such as aggression, temper tantrums and self-injury.

The child wears wireless sensors – small stickers that monitor the heart rate and relay this information to an iPad or tablet that translates their rate into a colour on the monitor.

“If you’re calm the screen will be green, if you’re anxious the screen will turn red and that’s how kids know they are anxious,” said Dr. Kushki.

Once a child reaches an anxious state, the Anxiety Meter will then provide instructions on how to best manage that anxiety, such as deep breathing techniques.

“We’ve come quite far and done quite a bit of work in terms of technical development, and we’re just running randomized controlled trials now,” said Dr. Kushki who hopes the Anxiety Meter will be available to the public in early 2017.

A demo for the Davies

Jim and Mary enjoyed seeing this technology first-hand when they visited Holland Bloorview for a demonstration at the end of 2015.

“That was amazing and I’m sure that this is going to be unbelievably helpful. I wouldn’t have ever dreamed up such a concept!” said Mary.

The Davies were just as amazed when they toured the hospital.

“Every time I set foot in there, I feel very comfortable, said Jim. “Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, it certainly warms one’s heart.”

“We were extremely impressed with the dedication of the people there,” added Mary. “Clearly they’re passionate about what they’re doing.”

Dr. Kushki feels the same way about the Davies.

“They have given me the opportunity to pursue my work that I think it will ultimately benefit kids with autism,” she said.

“Their gift hasn’t just given me a position,” stressed Dr. Kushki. “It’s given me the opportunity to raise other investment to provide positions for other people as well. I’m training several students, research assistants and engineers. It’s really benefitted a team of people, not just me.”