KANSAS CITY — Stuart Jackson was on a mission.
For years, the Overland Park, Kan. 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 (both trademarked) — and have applied for a patent. The ultimate goal: to get the chairs into all Blue Valley schools and beyond, maybe even into homes and clinics.
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.”
“We’ll hopefully put one at Timber Creek Elementary full time next semester,” he said.
Manbeck, a computer-integrated manufacturing instructor, said the chairs will be on display at a sensory fair at a local elementary school in April.
“It’s kind of been a well-kept secret,” he said. “Now we’re ready for the public to see them.”
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 at Timber Creek Elementary School 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 in the LIFT program, which serves children 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, is president and CEO of AnalyzeDirect, an Overland Park-based medical imaging software company, and has been a mentor to students in the CAPS global business program for two years.
He put together a presentation for CAPS students that included a video showing the difficulties faced by parents with a child on the autism spectrum. He also showed them clips from the movie about Temple Grandin.
“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.”
So he challenged the CAPS students to come up with a device that was lightweight, quiet, aesthetically pleasing and could potentially be used at home.
Manbeck put his engineering students to work. They brainstormed with Englehart and came up with several ideas before deciding on the current prototypes, using Grandin’s research as their inspiration.
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 Timber Creek Elementary 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.”
Andy Vietti, a Blue Valley Southwest High School senior, said students observed children in the LIFT program to get a better idea of what sensory issues needed to be addressed. That, combined with the Grandin movie, she said, “really gave me an emotional connection to the project.”
After more brainstorming, the 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.
The students have taken the chairs to Timber Creek Elementary several times for testing.
“Some of them were a little uneasy at first,” said Austin Edmondson, a Blue Valley Northwest High School senior. “But as it inflated around them, they enjoyed the pressure and embraced it. It was pretty cool. Just seeing how it helps the children has been incredible.”
Zach Naatz, a Blue Valley High School senior, acknowledged that the sensory chair project hadn’t been his first choice when he came to CAPS this semester.
“I really wanted to be on the aerospace project,” he said. “But then I read about this one and changed my mind.”
He said he wasn’t sure what to expect at the outset: “I hadn’t had a lot of experience with children with autism.”
But now, he’s convinced he made the right decision.
“I picked this project because I knew it was going to help people,” he said. “And then when I saw the impact it had, I really wanted to see it succeed.”
Now comes the next phase of the project:
“We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve proven the concept,” Jackson said. “Now we’ve got to prove that this is filling some void.”
If they’re able to demonstrate that there is indeed 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.
“This feedback will help us to understand the competitive landscape and the size of the market while generating ideas for improving the products,” Jackson said.