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An Architect Designed This Soft, Immersive Jungle Gym For His Autistic Daughter

University of Michigan professor Sean Ahlquist studies how immersive architecture could treat autism.

When computational design and material systems expert Sean Ahlquist learned that his toddler had autism, he quickly refocused his work on how it could serve a medical purpose. At SXSW in Austin last week, he presented the latest chapter of his research into interactive tactile architecture–which he calls Social Sensory Architectures.

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The project, called Sensory[PLAYSCAPE], is an amorphous playscape constructed from 3D-knitted elastic textiles fabricated on a computer-controlled knitter and stretched on sinuous glass-fiber reinforced polymer rods. Ahlquist, who is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, led a cross-disciplinary group of researchers from the school’s architecture, computer science, music, and integrative medicine departments (see a full list of project collaborators here) to develop the idea they call “sensorially responsive textile environments.”

Children with autism often have trouble with fine motor function (which is used for activities like writing), gross motor function (which is used for activities like riding a bike), and processing sensory information (like pain or strength). These physical limitations often have ripple effects socially, and can make it more difficult for children with autism to make friends.

“For children with autism, the interaction with technology is as much about stimulating the deeper receptors for tactile sensation, in the joints and muscles, as it is about creating a visually dynamic and engaging experience,” Ahlquist says. The idea is that “rewarding” specific movements (like being able to sustain pressure on the structure) helps teach children with autism how to better control their bodies.

The entire Sensory[PLAYSCAPE] is like one big interface. It detects movement and touch using a Microsoft Kinect, while a custom software program developed on the video game engine Unity translates the changes in the textile surface into visual projections. Different interactions within the structure–like how intensely you press on the material or where you glide your hands over the surface–trigger projections and sound. For example, pressing firmly into the textile causes “ripples” to appear. If you gently touch a spot in the fabric where a school of fish are circling, they disperse. Touch another spot, the sound of wind chimes is activated. The actual shape and scale of the Sensory[PLAYSCAPE] is designed to spark exploration. It’s strong enough to climb on and there are smaller crevices to discover inside—it’s like a soft playground jungle gym, but one that’s also therapeutic.

“We are seeking to help improve children’s level of physical activity, provide a better understanding of fine and gross motor control, and do so within a sensory rich and sensory rewarding environment,” Ahlquist explains.

The idea for creating a 3D playscape came after Ahlquist noticed how much fun his daughter, who is a toddler, had climbing around the inside of their car. The first prototype riffed on the size of the space and its configuration: there was a “front seat” big enough for two people to climb into and then a smaller back seat that was scaled more for an individual. Touching specific parts of the textile would bring about abstract projections that mimic what you’d see from a car window: rain drops, rippling water, and flocks of birds.

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“In therapies for children with autism, it is often that there is a sensory reward for completing a task,” Ahlquist says. “These can happen though as two different events. A visit to the sensory room would happen after completing a particular motor-related task, for example. We are looking to synthesize these experiences and almost reverse it. The sensory experience is the activity.”

Ahlquist and his fellow researchers also developed a 2D installation in which the textile is treated like a page from a coloring book. Children can “paint” the canvas with their hands; a software system translates their movements into colors that are then projected onto the surface. Each person interacts with it differently; for example, one child preferred the canvas to start out as a completely black projection that he would then “erase” to reveal the line drawing underneath it. The next step is fine-tuning the graphics to help encourage more specific behaviors and develop physical skills.

“We are just now starting to gather data for how the children are interacting with the prototypes,” Ahlquist says. “We are looking at how to analyze the myriad of data that we are capturing. In working with colleagues in kinesiology and psychiatry, we can then begin to craft interventions that would focus on building specific skills related to movement and social interaction.”

While autism is Ahlquist’s primary focus, he also thinks these prototypes could be developed into tools to help children and teens with emotional challenges, since they serve as creative outlets. (The structure is pretty fun to engage with, even for non-therapeutic purposes.) After SXSW, Sensory[PLAYSCAPE] will be installed at the Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin.

“By confronting challenges yet satisfying sensory demands, we hope to have children achieve a level of engagement and confidence to be able to take on one of the ultimate challenges in autism: social interaction,” Ahlquist says.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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