Touchy-feely environment helps autistic children

Autistic children often do not interact well with the world around them; being unable to understand events in their immediate surroundings and lacking any sense of an ability to control or direct events. This inability to interact inhibits their mental development; precisely the problem that MEDIATE was designed to help overcome.

The MEDIATE environment is a six-sided module about five metres across, which acts as a multi-sensory interactive environment for children. Designed for autistic children of primary-school age, the module was built with the help of psychologists from Kings College, Cambridge, and comprises a movement-sensing environment and touch-sensitive panels that react to the behaviour of the child who enters.

Infra-red cameras monitor the child’s movement and display representations of his or her figure on two wall-sized touch-sensitive screens, which respond to touch by displaying coloured patterns radiating out from the hand. Other walls have sections in wood, metal, bark and fur, each of which will respond to touch by amplifying any of the scratching or squeaking noises involved in the touching process. The module’s floor is also reactive, and movement across it prompts a range of different sounds from the module speakers.

“The clever part of the design is that the software recognises exploratory-type behaviour, then starts to add to the complexity of the environment,” says Chris Creed of Portsmouth University, coordinator of this IST project. “It processes the input from the infra-red cameras and other interfaces, and reacts by producing steadily escalating variations in the module’s visual and sound responses.”

He explains that autistic children tend to show disengagement from their environment by exhibiting repetitive behaviour, such as flapping their hands. When they are fully involved, this repetitive behaviour disappears, hence the importance of being able to recognise more exploratory reactions.

The MEDIATE module is fully transportable, and has been tested on autistic children by the project partners in Utrecht, The Netherlands, and Barcelona, Spain, as well as in Portsmouth, UK. Some 40 children have been tested, with each child’s reactions recorded on video and supplied to the child’s own psychologist for analysis. In addition some 600 people, including a high proportion of autistic children and adults, tried it out at a university open day this year.

The UK National Autistic Society has also held a day-long session with the parents of 12 of the autistic children tested. Their response was extremely positive – most parents were very surprised by the level of concentration aroused in their child by the environment, and the by the length of time they stayed interested.

The module is now being incorporated into a new year-long programme for local autistic children that is starting in October 2004. And several clinics for acute mental patients in the north of England are interested in trying it out, as is a local school with Downs Syndrome children.

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