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New technology helps create sensory experiences for children with autism

Jul 7, 2016

The Next Idea

For a child on the autism spectrum, there can be challenges to learning and engaging with the world.

Our latest contributors to The Next Idea are Sean Ahlquist and Leah Ketcheson. They're on a team from the University of Michigan that's developing exciting new technologies to help autistic children tackle those challenges.

Ahlquist has designed a fabric that's actually a screen, and when someone touches it, it changes colors or projects images. This technology is being called "Social Sensory Surfaces," which, Ahlquist explained, has to do with how we interact with our environment.

"The idea is to be as engaged as possible with that environment, so instead of being just a backdrop, it's actually ... a tactile, a sensory experience, and something which can also trigger and encourage social interaction within that space," he said.

Ketcheson told us they're starting a research project to determine what sort of impact, if any, daily interaction with this screen could have on a child's fine motor movements, including penmanship and fastening buttons, tasks she said children with autism can struggle with.

"We also want to look at the effect of physical activity," Ketcheson said, "because we know in children with autism, they have fewer opportunities to engage in physical activity, and as a result they really become more and more sedentary ... as they get older."

According to Ahlquist, the idea behind the project comes down to creating, "a sensory experience which allows the child to be comfortable and confident, to then start to slowly integrate most often the most challenging aspects in autism, which is the social interaction."  

Watch a preview of  "Social Sensory Surfaces" here:  

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GUESTS

Sean Ahlquist is an associate professor of architecture at the U of M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Leah Ketcheson is a postdoctoral fellow at the U of M School of Kinesiology.