'Each of the elements is inspired by existing therapies that are aimed at autism centres.'
Sensewear: clothing designed to help sufferers of Sensory Processing Disorders
It’s not often that Ajman is in the headlines. More often than not, it is overshadowed by its noisier neighbours – but that may be about to change. Thanks to two lecturers at Ajman University, the emirate is home to what could prove to be groundbreaking help for sufferers of Sensory Processing Disorders.
Despite the innocuous-sounding name, SPDs are serious and life- changing. They result from a disconnect between the brain and sensory stimuli (taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell). Sufferers struggle to make sense of the environment around them, resulting in confusion and distress.
Understanding Sensory Processing Disorders
While many may be unfamiliar with the condition, it appears to be on the rise. Recent statistics suggest 1 in 68 people in America suffer from SPD, while studies by the Star Institute of Sensory Processing Disorders in the United States suggest that as many as 1 in 6 children “experiences sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions”.
Neuroscientist A Jean Ayres has described it as a “traffic jam” to the brain, resulting in sufferers being either hyposensitive (disconnected to what is happening around them), or hypersensitive (overwhelmed by it). The sound of laughter, for example, may become an unbearable din, while a simple hug may be upsetting enough to trigger a breakdown. Part of the same spectrum that includes autism and Asperger’s, SPD has no cure and, left untreated, can profoundly impair quality of life, making even basic social interaction almost impossible, and leading to behavioural issues and even psychosis.
However, thanks to the pioneering work of Emanuela Corti and Ivan Parati – who are both engineering lecturers at Ajman University – help may be at hand. As well as teaching (incidentally, the pair are married and have just welcomed their second child), they are also part of a design collective called Caravan (CRVN).
Speaking at the university, Parati explains how the duo became interested in SPD. “About three years ago, thejamjar in Dubai contacted us to spread the word about a Lexus Design Award competition that was about to end. We tried hard to encourage students to participate, but because the deadline was in something like two weeks, we couldn’t find any. But we liked the theme, so we said: ‘Okay, we’ll do it’.”
Coming up with the idea of Sensewear
The theme in question was Senses, with no guidelines on how it was to be interpreted. Faced with such a broad proposition, the team started researching, and what they unearthed was as startling as it was inspiring. “We weren’t expecting to learn that senses are such an important part of the domain of disability,” Parati says. “We started reading statistics on how SPD is one of the faster growing development disabilities in the world.”
Having learnt that sufferers are unable to organise sensory signals into proper reactions, leaving them overwhelmed by colours, textures or sounds, Corti and Parati came up with the idea of Sensewear: soft apparel that provides comfort and protection.
With so little time until the deadline (“We had 10 days,” Parati reminds me), the pair submitted a hasty sketch by Corti to illustrate their concept, using cartoonish figures wearing items such as an aromatic scarf, an inflatable jacket, a musical poncho, and even a chewable necklace. “Ema didn’t think anyone would even look at her drawing, but she got shortlisted,” he adds.
Being shortlisted meant a mentor was assigned – in this instance, Robin Hunicke, a game designer and the CEO of Funomena – to advise and support the team through the next phase of the competition: transforming sketched ideas into working prototypes. “We went to the Dubai Autism Centre and showed them our concept,” says Parati, “and they gave us more insight and information, plus suggestions, and we embedded them into the designs.”
“Each of the elements is inspired by existing therapies that are aimed at autism centres. We didn’t invent the therapy, but the philosophy behind it was to embed the therapy into everyday objects. At present, this is accessories and garments, but maybe later could be furniture, an interior of cars or even trains; all places that are highly stressful,” he explains.
The Sensewear prototypes
Bitie is a biteable necklace because, as Parati explains “many people relieve their stress through either biting their finger nails or biting their necklace”. So this is something that people can use to relieve their stress on and could also be a part of a wider therapy programme. PullMe is an aromatic scarf, because smells can be harmful – they can recollect memories that can be negative and bring someone to a panic attack. But if you are able to bring along your own collection of familiar scents and smells, you will be reassured before the meltdown happens.
“Then there is a musical poncho that you can use to isolate yourself from the surrounding environment. You can direct the ears to different sounds and explore the soundscape around you. We imagined being in a forest where you can listen to the noises in an amplified way, and build up your own library of sounds. We thought it could be an interesting platform for a therapist.”
PumpMe is a jacket that can be inflated to create a squeezing sensation around the body, a technique that has been shown to give solace to autistic children. Parati explains: “This jacket uses pressure therapy with a compressive effect, to give a calming sensation. Autistic kids often have vests weighted with lead to help calm them, and kids often hide under mattresses to find a sense of pressure.”
Corti and Parati presented their Sensewear prototypes at the finals of the Lexus Design Awards 2015 in Milan, to a panel of judges that included leading architect Toyo Ito, British design critic Alice Rawsthorn, and Paola Antonelli, senior curator at MoMA. The couple walked away with the Grand Prix award.
As with most design competitions, winning was just the start of a long process to bring a concept into production, so when the duo was invited to exhibit Sensewear during Milan Design Week the following year, they embraced the opportunity. At Venice Design Week in 2016, Sensewear was named best wearable tech, while 2017 saw them pick up another award at the AXA PPP Health Tech & You awards in London.
What's next for Sensewear?
Most recently, Sensewear joined a European Commission programme that forms part of the Health 2020 initiative and enabled the designers to collaborate with three different universities. “We have just finished that programme,” Parati says. “We are now at the phase of refining the prototypes that will be in a PhD programme, where they will use our equipment in an autism centre from next month.”
Throughout the process of creating prototypes, the designs have been altered and modified many times. Now, for example, the biteable necklace has been transformed into an anti-stress charm, while the inflatable jacket has lost its hood and is similar to a sweater. Most importantly, all of the designs now incorporate technology. “We have a smart T-shirt that collects heart rate, breath rate and movement, and that data is screened via an app. This allows a therapist to set the thresholds of values that will trigger a reaction.”
Ultimately, the objective is to create an autonomous algorithm that will be capable of monitoring patients and adjusting levels of intervention as needed. “We still haven’t refined these prototypes, but the idea is to evolve them so that everything happens autonomously, because of course some people cannot make a decision for themselves. We are still discussing with doctors how to integrate elements as a communication tool for non-verbal patients.”
Although by no means the final result, the prototypes today are sleek, a world away from the child-like drawings first submitted. Pieces are moulded to sit in the hand, while clothes are soft and easy to put on, with no chafing seams or tags, and all are designed to minimise the everyday stress of SPD sufferers. With increased instances of anxiety seen across every strata of society, the items may also have day-to-day applications for the public. I enquire if, in five years’ time, I can look forward to an intelligent car interior that plays soothing music while I gnaw on my steering wheel?
“Maybe,” laughs Parati. “But more like in two.”