Management of Technology (MOT) master’s degree candidates John Finazzo and Ranjana Patankar designed a unique multi-sensory vest to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) cope with sensory processing issues.
This project illustrates that engineering is a holistic profession that uses creativity, design, and innovation to benefit people.
— Professor Harvey Hoffman, PhD
ASD is a complex neurological development disorder characterized by social interaction difficulties and communication challenges. Although symptoms vary greatly from person to person, research shows that 95% of autistic individuals have sensory processing issues in which the brain incorrectly interprets information received from the environment.
According to Patankar, most children (86%) with sensory processing disorders are under-responsive or seek sensation, which means that they need additional stimulation in order to regulate and process environmental cues. Attempts to self-soothe often manifest themselves in repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping, rocking, and vocalizing. While comforting to the child, these self-stimulation efforts can be disruptive in home and school settings.
Finazzo became interested in developing a multi-sensory wearable product to help soothe children with ASD after conversations with his girlfriend, a speech pathologist who works with autistic children. “She would often mention the challenging behaviors she had to work with when providing therapy,” he recalled, “and she thought a multi-sensory device could be beneficial.”
While researching such a device for their capstone project, Finazzo and Patankar found many single-sensory therapeutic devices for children with ASD – such as weighted blankets and vibrating massagers – but saw nothing that offered more than one sensory input. Therefore, said Patankar, “Our idea was to combine vibration and pressure for dual-sensory input, to maximize patient benefit in terms of better focus and reduction of self-stimulating behaviors.”
With the help of trained therapists at a Riverdale, N.Y. elementary school for autistic children, the capstone team tested several multi-sensory devices on students between the ages of six and nine. Each of the three prototype designs (a blanket, a vest, and a poncho) featured two direct sensory inputs: a battery-operated vibration stick to help process movement and gravity (vestibular input), and an adjustable inflated air bladder to register awareness of body position (proprioceptive input). Each prototype was also made of soft, comforting fabrics for indirect tactile stimulation. According to Professor Harvey Hoffman, PhD, director of the Management of Technology graduate program, he and the capstone team know of no product currently on the market that offers this combination of multi-sensory inputs. Upon completion of testing, the prototype design with the most encouraging results was the vest.
Education professionals at the school where the testing took place offered evaluations of the successful prototype device, gave recommendations for improvements, and had a lot of positive feedback about the look, the ease of use, and the effective combination of sensory inputs in the vest. According to Finazzo, the teachers and therapists plan to continue using the multi-sensory vest in the classroom beyond the testing phase. Finazzo and Patankar also feel that the multi-sensory device could be beneficial for addressing problematic behaviors at home and in social settings.
This capstone project marks the successful completion of the MOT program for both Finazzo and Patankar, but they hope that development of their unique multi-sensory vest will continue after they graduate next week. Patankar mentioned that they are pursuing patent opportunities, and Finazzo shared that Dr. Hoffman has been in contact with colleagues in Fairfield’s Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies to determine interest in the project.
Noting the transformative impact of service learning to both students and communities during the two-semester project, Dr. Hoffman summed up this capstone experience by saying, “In a sense, the Jesuit mission is to heal the world. This team of students applied that ideal to their MOT capstone course project and developed a unique product using the technical and entrepreneurial skills learned in the program.”
Dr. Hoffman also expressed hope that the vest will someday be widely available to children with ASD. Of Finazzo and Patankar's efforts he said, “Their research and development work enabled them to develop a useful product to help autistic children. This project illustrates that engineering is a holistic profession that uses creativity, design and innovation to benefit people.”