He made an app to help himself and people like him with panic attacks.

The next time you're on the verge of a panic attack, just give your phone to a stranger, and the Emergency Chat app can instruct them how to help.

Please note: This piece was written using identity-first language, which is sometimes preferred by people with autism and other conditions. You can read more here about the differences between identity-first and people-first language.

Have you ever felt totally overwhelmed by everything around you and just needed the world to stop for a moment?

Hey, it happens to the best of us.


GIF from "Community."

But for many people who fall on the spectrum of autism, these kinds of experiences can be all too common.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of neuro-atypical conditions typically characterized by impairments or difficulties in social, developmental, and occupational behaviors.

Autistic people often have to work extra hard to interpret social cues and communicate with others, which, well, can be really frustrating.

Think of your own worst memory of the stress caused by miscommunication. Then imagine pretty much every single social interaction you have being just like that — totally outside your internal comfort zone.



GIF from "Suburgatory."

You can see how easy it can be for an autistic person to be overcome by the sensory overload surrounding them every day from normal human interaction and communication alone.

People have different ways of responding to stress, such as panic attacks, a loss of speech, or an inability to move. For autistic people whose behavioral patterns are already considered atypical, these signs might be even harder to identify.

While it's nice when people try to help in those moments, sometimes their questions make things worse.

Especially when you can't give them the answers they need to help you.

Sometimes, when you're stressed out, the absolute last thing you need is for someone to ask you how they can help. It's a nice gesture, of course, but when you've reached a certain point in your panic attack, you probably don't have the brainpower left to articulate your needs.

And sometimes — particularly for autistic people — you actually, literally, can't talk.

It's not that autistic people are trying to be difficult. It's not that they're being stubborn or prideful or refusing help. When your body is too overwhelmed with stress and adrenaline, sometimes you just cannot fulfill the functions someone is asking of you.

Even if you really, really want to.

That's why Jeroen De Busser created the Emergency Chat app — for those times when verbal communication is just not an option.

Jeroen is an autistic computer science student. He shared with me by email his memory of a particularly harrowing meltdown in which he went completely nonverbal.

The situation was further exacerbated by the presence of his friends, who despite their best intentions, did not know how best to help him — and of course, he was unable to tell them himself, which made everything even more frustrating.

GIF from "Community."

This experience inspired Jeroen to create Emergency Chat, a text-based app that displays personalized instructions on how to assist or handle an individual during a meltdown or panic attack, instead of wasting precious time in trying to parse through verbal communication. The app is currently available for Android phones, but we're told that an iOS version is in the works. Update 8/10/15: An iOS version is now available as well!

Here's what Emergency Chat looks like:

All you need to do is hand your phone to someone, and the app will tell them how to best help.

Here's how Jeroen describes the user interface:

"It has a base text that explains to the person you gave your phone to that you can't use speech and want to use this app to communicate.

Both the title and text can be adjusted in the settings to be whatever you want the person you give your phone to to know."

The app then provides a bare-bones chat interface, that lets you communicate with the people trying to help:

Although the default screen is set for autistic people, it can be customized for any number of physical, mental, or emotional needs.

While most of the Emergency Chat's 500+ users have relied on its default functionality for autism, one savvy user has customized the app to help with their tracheostomy, in case there is ever a problem:

The best way to help one another is to listen, and things like Emergency Chat improve communication for everyone.

I know that deep within our hearts of hearts we're all good people, and we genuinely want to help each other. But I also know that even when we mean well, we need to be sure that we're helping people on their own terms, the way they want and need to be helped.

This is particularly true when it comes to autistic people. Just because they function differently from the majority of people doesn't mean they don't function at all.

What an app like Emergency Chat does is give autistic people, or people with PTSD, or people with tracheostomies, and so on, control over the way the world around them tries to help them function when they lose their ability to speak. It saves them the stress and anxiety of wondering what will happen to them, whether they're with friends or in a strange environment, and it ensures that they can ask for — and receive — the help they need.

In short — it's a win for everyone involved.

GIF from "Community."


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Today, I'm a 35-year-old man with a flame shaved into my beard. If the '80s movies I love so much are any indication, this is a sure sign I'm going through some kind of existential crisis. Next week, when the semester starts and I begin teaching again, it will not be strange if my colleagues start to worry about me just a little. A sports car or a neck-jerking pivot to physical fitness — that's an understandable response to the realization that life is fleeting. But a large meticulous flame carved out of facial hair? What does one do with that?

At this moment, though, I'm showing my face proudly to a woman wearing a swimsuit with a taco cat on it. We have only recently met, but she's telling me that she's so into my "fade" that she wants to kiss it. Then she does, blowing a raspberry into my cheek so hard that her hat falls off. Neither of us can stop laughing.

"Live Mas!" she yells with the excitement of someone who's never had trouble fully seizing the moment.

"Live Mas!" I shout back without any irony. There is no irony here in Palm Springs, where, for four days only, hundreds of people celebrate their love for Taco Bell.

Here, there's only swimming and hot sauce-themed leisure wear, and the warm pleasant feeling that comes from eating too much and knowing that you're with your own people. Even if the only thing that connects you is a love for a fast food giant that feeds you when you're hammered and shameless at 2 a.m.

We drank the Baja Blast! My Taco Bell fade and my friend's specialty manicure!Mark Shrayber

What does it mean to Live Mas? This is a question I am forced to ask myself over and over during my 24-hour stay at "The Bell," where I have stowed away as a friend's plus-one. We are, of course, both politely pretending that I'm a full-on guest with all the perks that entails, but we also both know that I wouldn't be here eating unlimited quesadillas poolside without her.

So maybe that's the first thing Live Mas means: To build strong lifelong connections which you can, with some luck, exploit to your benefit. :) :) :)

But this is too cynical an interpretation, because everyone here is so happy. Happy that they've gotten a reservation; happy that they can cool off in a room themed after an iconic Mountain Dew Drink, and happy that they can share their own personal story of what Taco Bell means to them. (Though there's no formal essay contest — I've checked.)

Me: This room won't be that cool. Also me: OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE COOLEST ROOM I'VE EVER BEEN IN!!!Mark Shrayber

Snatches of this story float around the "Fire" pool, where all the entertainment is concentrated: One couple canceled their trip to Prague because "Prague will always be there" — a brave stance considering climate change; another met last year on Tinder after the girlfriend's Taco Bell senior photos went viral; at the opening ceremony on Thursday, where sauce packets were cut instead of a ribbon, a city official brought others to tears with both her Taco Bell fashion and a memory of how her parents would feed an entire family with 19-cent-tacos from the first-ever Taco Bell in Downey, California.

Oh, I forgot one: The guy who skipped out on Prague? He got a giant bell shaved into the side of his head, so he might have to miss out on a black-tie event happening later this week. But it's all good. Bring on the nacho fries.

I make fast friends with four women who are here for a bachelorette party, the bride overwhelmed with good vibes and prosecco. This year, for her 30th, she rented a party bus. Inside? $100 worth of Taco Bell that her fiancee was worried might not be consumed.

"But little did he know," she shouts in the hot tub where we're "cooling off" after a long day of 108-degree sunning, "we ate it all!"

A bachelorette party and a birthday! We're really living it up (but also staying hydrated.)Mark Shrayber

Others whoop it up at the twist, but we all get it. Though there's no essay contest, I don't mind telling you that when my first boyfriend dumped me 14 years ago, I stuffed my face with chalupas. When I lost a job I really loved four years ago, I once ordered so much Taco Bell that the delivery app of my choice informed me I'd exceeded the maximum number of items they could comfortably fill in one order. We get it — though none of us can truly explain it.

There are, if you look at the The Bell from a literary perspective, many other writers who deserve this experience more than me. They could talk about the blue of the pool. Or the insouciance of youth. Draw parallels between marketing stunts such as this and the end-stage capitalism. Or envision a "Demolition Man" future where Taco Bell is fine dining and none of us know how to use the three shells in the bathroom to get ourselves clean.

And I wish these writers could be here to paint you these landscapes, but what you've got is me, a literal Taco Bell super-fan, and what I'm doing is eating and getting sunburned and taking a synchronized swimming class with the Aqualillies, who refer to themselves as "the world's most glamorous water ballet entertainment," but have very little idea of what to do with 10 eager recruits who can't stay afloat or on beat.


G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S!!Photo courtesy of Taco Bell.

"It's okay," one of the instructors comforts me just before the Tacolilies (the name of our "team") are invited to perform our watery version of "Senorita" — which was supposed to be two minutes long, then 1:15, and has now been judiciously cut down, due to talent, to about 45 seconds — in the bigger pool. "We regularly teach five-year-olds. And you're doing much better."

Usually, I would take offense at such blatant reads, but today I'm unbothered. I'll continue to be so right until I get home and discover that I've left all my electronics on United Flight 5223 (if anyone wants to get them back to me). And even then, I rage at myself for all of five seconds before checking that I've still got what's important: A certificate that says I did not drown while doing water ballet.

It's still there. As is my phone, which is blowing up with messages from people who took pictures of me in what Taco Bell calls its "power suit," and which is best described as "cult outfit, but kinda make it fashion." I bought my husband one, too, and I look forward to the argument we're going to have about holiday cards later.

This is "Live Mas."

I've never been so happy to match with someone else in my life. MaMark Shrayber

Or maybe it's the moment another stranger tells me that we'll be friends forever. Such friendships are forged quickly when you've got less than 24 hours to make lifelong connections and I'm pleased to get the full experience.

"We may never meet again," he says while we're swimming, "but we'll always have this time together."

Then we establish that he lives just across the park from me in San Francisco.

"Aw, man," he says, floating away to take pictures of the people he came with, "I've got lots of close friends I never see because they live across that damn park."

But the sentiment holds.

We Live Mas it on.

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