Ron Kuhr of Raleigh, a retired NC State professor of entomology, has a 41 year-old son with autism, a diagnosis that has grown in prevalence from one in a thousand to nearly one in a hundred children over the past few decades.Everyone is anxious to know: How will autistic children learn to cope with daily living as they mature and attempt to live independently as adults?
For the Kuhrs, complete independence for their son seems out of reach. “Our son Matt will always require some sort of assistance,” said Mary Kuhr. “He will never live alone. That is not to say that he can’t increase his level of independence.”
Helping to equip communities of impaired adults with better tools for life is the business of Community Contact, a studio course within the industrial design program at the NC State University College of Design.
In the program’s 15-year history, industrial design students have collaborated with a number of not-for-profit entities including the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, the Arthritis Foundation, the NC Child Health and Safety Commission, and the Springmoor Life Care Retirement Community, an assisted living facility.
Autism presented some new challenges for students, said Percy Hooper, an associate professor of industrial design and the director of the program.
People with autism may exhibit any of a number of symptoms, including difficulty communicating and keeping a schedule, hypersensitivity to noise and light, and trouble coping with change.
To help them learn about autistic challenges, the 22 industrial design students of the ID 300 studio course interfaced with the Creative Living Center in Raleigh, a day program operated by the Autism Society of North Carolina.
The center helps more than 20 autistic adults refine life skills—as well as learn how to make art they can make a living selling.
“This is the first time we have had the students engage with a population that had a mental or an emotional impairment,” said Hooper. “We had to do a lot of research. There were plenty of opportunities for making mistakes. But by collaborating with the Creative Living center, we were able to reduce these to a minimum.”
On Oct. 11, the center hosted an event in which several NC State students presented their invention designs that included:
- A day-planning device that uses pictures and color coding to prompt the user through daily chores.
- A pillow that lets a sleeper know if it’s time to rise. (Some autistic persons have below-normal levels of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep aid.)
- A headset that shields certain frequencies of light and dampens sound.
A crowd of about 30 instructors, parents of the center’s autistic clients and several autistic participants themselves viewed the students’ PowerPoint presentations of ideation sketches and 3D modeling. They challenged the students on some aspects of their designs and applauded them on others.
The Kuhrs liked several of the products, including the Hygia, a durable video player designed by junior ID student Andrew Kyriakoulis which plays customized, how-to videos on a number of daily grooming tasks.
“There was something there for everyone,” said Mary Kuhr. “It wasn’t just one-size fits all.”
Whether any of the students’ inventions will make it to market is uncertain. The University’s Office of Technology Transfer holds the power to patent a product and license it to a manufacturer—but the process is costly. Only a small percentage of University-owned intellectual property is patented, said Hooper.
But many of the students got a taste for designing for the autism market and might carry that into their careers of using design to help others, suggested Mary Kuhr.
Said Ron Kuhr: “It’s hard to imagine our son living alone. But he has become more independent as he’s aged, and some of these devices we saw today could add to that individuality.”