A group of teens from Denton is getting international attention for an invention they hope will help people with disabilities.
Four students from the Texas Academy of Mathematics & Science at the University of North Texas recently took home a top prize in AT&T's Inventor's Challenge competition thanks to a little device designed to help police better interact with people who struggle to communicate.
"We realized there's a real problem in this space, because there's this inability to communicate between these two sides," said student inventor Rhythm Garg. "Both want to be able to communicate, so we decided if we have technology it may ameliorate these interactions and prevent negative things from happening in the first place."
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Together Garg, Wendy Rossi, Jeffrey Chen and Connie Wang invented the Intrapod.
It's a 3D-printed modular device that can alert the police or other first responders to a person's communication disorder through an app.
The group says they were inspired by the story of Larry Dierker, a man on the autism spectrum, who spent a night behind bars after a run in with police escalated due to miscommunication.
"He doesn't always understand what they're asking him. You can ask that question, but he doesn't always process it. He doesn't always understand what you're saying, so his responses haven't always been appropriate, or he'll just shut down," his mother Nancy Dierker said.
In the past, Dierker has carried an identification card that explains his disorder. He has the opportunity to present it once an interaction has begun, but he and his mom said that hasn't always been effective.
Instead, the students came up with the Intrapod to digitize that process. As long as Dierker has the Intrapod on him, either around his wrist or in his pocket, police will be able to pull up his information from an app before they approach him.
It's been a year-long process for the students involving several different prototypes while working hand-in-hand with both law enforcement and the autism community.
"The autism community is one of the fastest growing out there today, so interactions with first responders are increasing on daily basis," said Sgt. John Hester with the UNT Police Department. "To work with [these students] and see the progress they made has been outstanding."
The teens have plans to continue working on the Intrapod with the hope it will eventually be small enough to fit into a wallet, making it as inconspicuous and easy to carry as possible.
"We can try to understand how we can leave a bigger impact. Even though we're high schoolers we can use amazing resources we've been empowered to try bringing social change," Garg said.
In addition to a $1,000 grant, the prize also landed the teens a special meeting today with top entrepreneurs, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.