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Students build chairs to help children with autism

Above photo: Students Austin Edmondson, left, and Zach Naatz, right, adjust a sensory chair for Jackson Finkeldei, 9, who suffers from Sensory Processing Disorder. | Tammy Ljungblad/The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Stuart Jackson was on a mission.

For years, the Overland Park father had searched for a way to help his son find relief from the stress and anxiety often experienced by children with autism. Like many of those children, Joshua could be soothed through deep touch pressure — the kind of feeling one might get by being tightly hugged or squeezed.

Jackson came across a few potential solutions on the market, but they tended to be clunky, noisy or ineffective. And way too expensive.

So he took it to CAPS — the Center for Advanced Professional Studies in the Blue Valley School District. And the engineering students rose to the challenge.

Using such items as a papasan chair, an inflatable air bag, a swimming pool noodle and a remote control air pump, they designed and built a device that not only provides deep pressure to calm the user, but is affordable and looks like a regular piece of furniture. It could work in the home or in an educational or clinical setting.

Now the students are testing and refining their two prototypes — the Sensory Chair and the Sensory Lounger — and have applied for a patent.

The children love the chairs, said Keith Manbeck, a CAPS instructor.

“The first time we tested it, one of the kids was on the verge of a meltdown,” Manbeck said. “Then he got in it, and he just calmed right down.”

The chairs, Manbeck said, “are real close to being done” and should be on display at a sensory fair at an area elementary school in April.

It’s been well-documented that sensory therapy such as deep touch pressure can calm children with autism, reducing tantrums, meltdowns and hyperactivity.

Temple Grandin discovered that concept by way of a cattle chute.

Often described as the world’s most well-known and accomplished adult with autism, Grandin observed as a teen that the cattle on her aunt’s ranch became calm when they were put in a chute that squeezed them firmly as they were given their vaccinations. She persuaded her aunt to let her try out the chute and found that the device had the same calming effect on her.

Grandin went on to become a leading advocate for people with autism and is internationally known for using insights gained from her autism to cultivate dramatic improvements in the livestock industry. Her story was told in an award-winning HBO film in 2010.

Grandin designed a “squeeze machine” that works like the cattle chutes, providing deep touch stimulation evenly and laterally.

Amber Englehart, an occupational therapist in Overland Park, said talk of such a device came up at a parent-teacher conference with the Jacksons. Their 11-year-old son, Joshua, is on the severe end of the autism spectrum.

“Joshua’s dad asked if I knew anyone in the district who either had a hug machine, the kind from Temple Grandin, or if any school in the district had one,” she said. “But I didn’t. They’re very expensive.”

That’s when they decided to approach the CAPS program.

Jackson, an entrepreneur with a background in engineering, put together a presentation for CAPS students that included a video showing the difficulties faced by parents with a child on the autism spectrum.

“Basically, the stuff that’s on the market either does not apply enough pressure or costs way too much,” he said. “The Temple Grandin squeeze machine costs several thousand dollars. It’s about 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide, weighs 300 pounds and has a big, industrial-strength compressor on it. It’s very noisy and is impractical for a home.”

He challenged the CAPS students to come up with a device that was lightweight, quiet, aesthetically pleasing and could potentially be used at home.

The lounger was the first. It has a plywood base, an air mattress pump and cushions made of high-density foam.

They took it to a school to test.

“There were five kids who tried it, and not one of them wanted to get out,” Jackson said. “So we regrouped at the beginning of this semester and talked about what we could do to make it an even better design.”

After more brainstorming, students came up with a new model.

They put inflatable airbags on top of a papasan chair, then placed a vinyl cover over the bags and a swimming noodle around the edges for more cushion. They topped it all with a removable blue cover made of stretch fabric and put a yellow drape with an elastic band around the bottom of the chair to cover the components.

The pressure is regulated by a hand-held remote. The district’s risk manager has checked the chairs out and determined they are safe.

The green lounger weighs about 70 pounds, while the papasan chair, at 30 to 40 pounds, is less cumbersome and easier to transport. The cost of either chair is expected to be just under $1,000.

If the students can demonstrate that there is a market for the chairs, the students will develop a business model then take it to potential investors.

The global business students will interview parents of children with autism as well as occupational therapists in special education classrooms and therapy centers.

Meggin Finkeldei had to see the chairs for herself. Her 9-year-old son, Jackson, has sensory processing disorder.

“About 95 percent of an SPD kid’s day is spent in fight-or-flight syndrome,” she said. “They get exhausted very quickly and have high anxiety.”

Finkeldei said it’s hard to find products that will help calm the children.

“Most of our equipment we have to build from scratch,” she said. “I love this, because it doesn’t look like a special piece of equipment. This could sit in the corner of a classroom and nobody will say, ‘Hey, that’s the weird kids’ chair.’ ”

Her fourth-grader stretched out in the lounger and grinned.

“I could just fall asleep in here,” he said. “It feels like a big hug.”

As she watched her son lying peacefully in the chair, she began to cry.

— Judy L. Thomas, The Kansas City Star