University researchers and students create device designed to aid in Autism therapy

Wednesday, August 12, 2015 - 4:31pm

Two University researchers, with the help of their students, have created a touch-sensitive coloring book that assists in autism spectrum disorder therapy and treatment.

In a video released by the College of Engineering, University professor Dr. David Chesney and assistant professor Sean Ahlquist demonstrate how the device attempts to teach autistic children collaborative play.

Chesney teaches Computer Science and Engineering and Ahlquist is an assistant professor of Architecture. Every semester, Chesney’s students work alongside him to create a new technology related to a specific disability.

This past semester, Chesney and Ahlquist decided to work collaboratively to create the touch-sensitive device, which is part of a larger work on social sensory surfaces that Ahlquist and Chesney created with the help of Sile O’Modhrain, associate professor of Performing Arts Technology in The School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

The final creation works as a 3D coloring board that changes color based on how much pressure is applied to the board’s fabric. While coloring, patients learn how much pressure they are actually applying, which Ahlquist explains in the demonstration video is a common struggle for those living with Autism.

“Often, there can be a challenge for children with autism that they don’t understand the amount of pressure that they are applying to do certain tasks,” Ahlquist says. “Therefore, they can often use an inappropriate amount of pressure — whether it’s too much pressure or too little pressure,” Ahlquist said. “With this technology...the textile, which can be designed as a stretchable surface, we can use that as a kind of gradation of input, so not just sensing when it’s touched, but sensing how much force is being applied with each individual touch.”

This device’s test subject was Ahlquist’s five-year-old daughter, Ara, who is autistic. The students were able to meet her and develop a device that would be beneficial to her, according to Ahlquist.

“The students actually [looked] at some of the strengths and challenges that my daughter faces… she has a lot of sensory issues, so the use of a textile to interact and play and communicate is more definitely satisfying than just a glass screen,” Ahlquist said.

The video has received over 3,200 views since its posting a week ago and has been shared by Autism Speaks, a well-known organization that promotes autism awareness.

When asked what they hoped the students would gain from this research experience, both Chesney and Ahlquist focus on the awareness of others in the development of the student’s creations.
“There are many more audiences and unique needs for software than they traditionally considered,” Chesney said. “Considering these unique needs hopefully makes them better software engineers.”

Alhquist echoed Chesney’s statement.

“What I hope they took away was a better understanding of how to develop technology specifically for this set of children, for children that have autism, because it’s a very unique challenge to address,” Ahlquist said.