Looking at Autism

Looking at Autism
74/365 - autism awareness.
Autism Awareness ribbon. Image: BLW Photography.

Just a week until I begin my Honours work and final year of uni (at least for quite a while). But the planning process has been underway for some time…

At its core, my Honours project for 2011 will look at children with sensory disabilities, namely autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs). Studying at an art/design school, my work is generally self-absorbed, rather than user-focused. The irony of course is that I have centred my studies on experiential media. This project will look at how children with ASDs respond when given the ability to affect a sensory object: an entirely user-focused concept.

Using much of the technology I have already worked with over the past few years, I hope to create devices which are unique to several participants in the project. Working with therapists and families with children who have ASDs, I will take feedback given to me to refine the devices and research over the coming year.

I hope that this case study will be a valuable process – not just for my own work, but in helping the participants of the study. It’s not expected – nor likely – that I will create a ‘finished’ design within the next 9 months, more that this research will provide a prototype and possibly open a path for future postgraduate research.

Using sensory technology as part of therapy for people with ASDs has resulted in conflicting reports – generally anecdotal – and in fact many negative responses. However, the lack of empirical research around the topic suggests that any study that I carry out could be of interest for those people looking at such connections. Having said that, my research will be a case study only – working with a large enough test group to generate comprehensive results is far beyond the scope of my Honours year.

One of the biggest caveats with this project is that I’m not a student of human research. I spend the vast majority of my time tethered to a computer keyboard, which comes with very little real-world interaction. Along with this, my knowledge of ASDs is extremely limited.¬†Fortunately, I have been blessed with the assistance of a couple of therapists who are willing to give me some of their time and knowledge. To say that this will be valuable is a massive understatement.

Last week I spent the day with some amazing students, teachers and carers at the Vern Barnett School in Forestville, near Sydney. This school works with children generally of primary school age, with varying levels of ASD, but all outside of the mainstream schooling population.

This was an important – if at times overwhelming – experience. To see the vast symptoms of ASD in so many children certainly was eye-opening. What I really learnt was through witnessing how important the connection between child and carer was. The staff at the Vern Barnett School are nothing short of amazing, and to observe the methods they employed to try and engage each child was certainly impressive. What was reinforced to me was that anything I create should be enabling to the therapy process: not an attempt at changing a child’s behaviour, but instead a conduit for engagement between them and the carer (whether that is a teacher, parent etc). The Positive Partnerships website (which is definitely worth checking out if you would like to learn more about autism) presents this idea with the following quote:

“You cannot change someone’s autism but you can change the way in which an individual can cope with it” (Beardon, 2004).

So what technologies will I be using throughout this project? Well, that’s a tough call, because this is such an open-ended case study. The children I eventually work with will dictate which sensory areas are the most appropriate. ASD being the vast range of issues that it is, could see me using any number of combinations of multisensory technology. There are defining features for the diagnosis of ASD however, which may form some kind of starting point. Again, from the Positive Partnerships website:

The terms “Autism Spectrum Disorders” (ASD) and “pervasive developmental disorders” (PDD) are used synonymously to refer to a wide spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders that have three core observable features:

  • Impairments in social interaction
  • Impairments in verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour.

These are all features that I observed first-hand at the Vern Barnett School amongst almost all the children. Difficulties in communication and social interaction make ASDs particularly complex in dealing with, which will make the year ahead a pretty massive one. I think these are also great and important challenges for someone like myself, that is interested in the concept of interaction and how we as humans experience it.

As testing as the project may be, I must say I am really excited about the work ahead. To have already received some positive response to these ideas from people who work with these children on a daily basis is inspiring and I’m looking forward to meeting, working and interacting with some remarkable people.

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