Observing the difficulties faced by an autistic child firsthand has led one Kiwi designer to create a toy to teach positive play behaviours.
“Autistic children find it difficult to play,” says Helen Andreae, who developed the mechanised, responsive Auti prototype through an industrial design paper at Victoria University last year.
“They have great difficulty using their imagination to develop even the simplest fictional scenarios and have even further difficulties playing with other children because they often don’t understand how they should control their voice and body. This can scare other children away when they are trying to make friends."
Auti was designed especially for autistic children six months and up in consultation with a child psychologist and professor, both with experience in dealing with autistic children. Dr Peter Andreae from Victoria’s School of Engineering and Computer Science did the computer programming.
Andreae says the toy helps develop speaking, touching and collaborative skills.
"It shuts down in response to any negative behaviour such as hitting or screaming, but quickly responds to the slightest positive interaction such as speaking gently or stroking. Each sensor can be adjusted to respond appropriately to a child’s individual characteristics," she explains.
“I have had an awareness of autism for a long time, through family discussions and through observing the autistic child of a friend. In developing my design challenge, I thought a toy which could help families dealing with autism would be a positive area to focus my energies on.”
Andreae says the toy is currently a prototype, so only children of friends and family have played with it so far.
“The response to it has been positive—children love the fluffiness of Auti which is made of possum fur,” she says.
“If one day Auti was commercialised it would need further fine tuning and I’d look at broadening its functions for a range of teaching applications.”