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New technology helps create sensory experiences for children with autism

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."  

Our conversation with Sean Ahlquist and Leah Ketcheson

Watch a preview of  "Social Sensory Surfaces" here:  


Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here.


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.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Sensory playscapes will be at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum on July 10.
Photo courtesy of Sean Ahlquist, University of Michigan /
Sensory playscapes will be at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum on July 10.

Ryan is interning as a Production Assistant for Stateside. An Ypsilanti native, Ryan received a Music Production/Engineering certificate from Washtenaw Community College and is currently studying at Eastern Michigan University, pursuing degrees in Electronic Media and Film as well as Electrical Engineering Technology. For as long as he can remember, Ryan has loved public radio. Ryan is a big fan of podcasts, movies, longboarding, playing the drums, video games and spicy foods.