© 2024 WUTC
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Engineering Designs For People With Autism


In homes where a family member has autism, day-to-day tasks inside and outside the house can be challenging. And as Patrick Skahill of Connecticut Public Radio reports, one family is trying to solve some of those challenges by working with engineering students from the University of Connecticut who recently presented some of their ideas at a science fair.

PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: Darlene Borre says every person with autism is unique.

DARLENE BORRE: My son is 18. He has severe autism, and he's non-verbal.

SKAHILL: Borre lives with her son, Ben. And she says for parents of children with severe autism, talking about the challenges of daily living can sometimes be hard.

BORRE: Because it's very vulnerable to discuss some of these topics. Our type of autism is messy. It's sometimes dangerous.

SKAHILL: Ben is over six feet tall and weighs 250 pounds. Borre says he can be impulsive around food. If he gets into the refrigerator unsupervised, he might break glass or put too much food into his mouth and choke. And child locks can't keep him safe.

BORRE: Right now, we have a titanium bike lock. So every time we open the refrigerator, we have to undo the bike lock. And so that - you can't imagine how time consuming that is, or maybe a younger member of our family will leave it open.

SKAHILL: Many families are living with someone identified as having autism spectrum disorder - according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 59 children in the United States. Borre says the day-to-day challenges of caring for people with a spectrum of complicated needs can sometimes make families feel hopeless.

But today, Borre is hopeful. She winds her way through a room packed with poster presentations. It's got a science fair feel - dozens of future engineers and computer scientists packed together, explaining designs for new products for people with autism. Freshman engineering majors Andrew Tureaud and Jackson Chard shared their team's thoughts on a better fridge lock with Borre.

ANDREW TUREAUD: And this would screw into the door of the refrigerator. And this would screw into the side. And so it'd be a spring-loaded dowel. And you'd just pull it out.

BORRE: So the dowel is something - what's going to prevent the person with autism from taking the dowel out?

JACKSON CHARD: The safety lock on the bottom. It would be keypad locked, so...

SKAHILL: The projects are a collaboration between UConn's Service Learning Program and the school of engineering. Dan Burkey, an associate dean at UConn, says the idea is to bring elegant engineering to underserved consumers.

DAN BURKEY: When you look at how products are designed and marketed - right? - very often they are not designed or marketed with certain, you know, vulnerable demographics in mind. They really are targeted towards what we would consider the average consumer.

SKAHILL: Also on display is an app which helps caregivers find family restrooms when they're traveling, and a shower and tub guard that would prevent bathroom overflows by connecting to a timer on an iPad. And while many of the projects are ideas, not full-blown prototypes, Burkey says the time is right for engineers to help serve niche markets.

BURKEY: Looking at, you know, what are the needs, and how can I bring my expertise and my creativity and my passion to bear on that?

SKAHILL: Darlene Borre says transforming those ideas into real solutions gives people like her son Ben more independence.

BORRE: And more choice and control. It's not about containing them. It's about understanding their experience and respecting that and making life easier for them. Sometimes all that takes is a design change.

SKAHILL: Harnessing technology to assist people, especially those, Borre says, who are most in need of help. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Skahill in Hartford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.