We interviewed the DFA Studio at University of Oregon about their project, which focuses on increasing interaction among children with non-verbal autism.  One of their solutions, the Calm Wall, looks at how children with autism can engage in multi-sensory experience through light, touch, and sound, to interact with each other and be better prepared to transition from play time to school time. Read about some of their journey!

To start-out, you can get an overview of their challenge with their lovely video here.

How did you guys decide to tackle this challenge?

When we began looking into autism, we learned about so many different threads of experience, whether we focused on the teachers, the parents, or children with autism at any point on the spectrum. Since this issue is so large, we chose to put all of our efforts towards an aspect that we as well as the teachers saw in the local school. That issue was the students’ aversion to interaction and the chaotic transitions they experienced when changing activities and spaces. We decided to focus on one area of the autism spectrum and felt that we would have the greatest impact on the children who are nonverbal – we were especially interested in their inability to communicate “conventionally,” and the creative opportunities that came with it to really improve interaction and communication between the kids and the teachers.

In tacking these focused issues, we brainstormed through different creative outlets that achieved communication and collaboration in a nonverbal way.

What type of feedback or responses did you get from your community partners?

Initially, the feedback we received at earlier stages of the project really solidified for us the complexity of designing for children with autism. We were told that if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism. We believe that although people share characteristics and some tendencies in autism, each person is different in their learning styles and reactions to various stimuli.Our hope was that while focusing on an extreme trait like being nonverbal, our project might still be relevant to children with other characteristics.

When we finally tested our Calm Wall and other concepts, we were nervous. It had been a little while since we had gone to the school, and our community partners at Bridgeway House were ready to be surprised. Lights dimmed, we set up the prototype and allowed the kids to interact and react to it on their own time as they ran in from recess. Some students touched the wall, creating sound and light patterns, some laid back and listened calmly, and others even danced. It was incredible to see the face of their teacher, Nathelle, being moved to tears by their calmness. She said that the students normally come back from recess all riled up, creating a chaotic transition from playtime to school time. She had never seen a calmness that blanketed the room like this. Nathelle expressed enormous gratitude for our work and was impressed with the effect that the Calm Wall had on her students overall.

Watch some of the testing footage below —

What’s next for the project?

For our winter term, we will be redesigning the Calm Wall and considering more detailed elements such as manufacture, distribution, and ease of use for different schools. We are looking forward to actually building a working model by learning programming and looking for people who have extensive knowledge in user interfaces and interaction design. As our mockups and models are built, we will continue to test them in local schools to gather more consistent results.

By spring, our goal is to have a finalized and implementable design paired with a thorough story of our journey that we hope to share! We will be applying to project incubators, grants, scholarships, and competitions to fund our materials and testing, with hopes of distributing the Calm Wall throughout schools for children with autism and seeing our work improve their daily experiences and interactions.

In memory of Carlene Ho. DFA UO autism project lead.