Research shows that massage as therapy is an effective method of relieving stress in those with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Through examination of academic texts, user testing, and consulting with behavioural clinicians, Serene Vibe was developed and prototyped.
Serene Vibe is a scalp massager designed to be used whilst out in the community, where sensory overload is often higher due to unfamiliar and novel environments.
The massager is intended to be worn before a meltdown to prevent or reduce the severity of heightened behaviour. It is anticipated that the calming haptic feedback received will increase the user's sense of wellbeing and prevent self-harm.
An estimated 1 in 70 Australians is diagnosed with an Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is often complicated by the presence of comorbidities such as intellectual disabilities or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Those with ASD have a high likelihood of having a meltdown due to larger fluctuations in cortisol, in response to a novel event or environment. Meltdowns are often characterised by self-harm, loss of control, and panic.
There are numerous products that either directly or indirectly cater to ASD; however, they are often unsuitable for meeting the complex needs of high-level autistic individuals.
Triggers and Sensory Overload
The most common triggers for problem behaviour can include, but are not limited to anxiety, sensory overload, routine changes, and being misunderstood. Sensory overload is a common autistic trait and is a symptom used to diagnose autism.
Others can reduce the severity of a meltdown by providing distractions, comforting the individual, understanding and identifying its warning signs, and removing the trigger or person from the presence of a trigger.
Massage as Therapy
Massage provides haptic stimulation, distracting an overwhelmed individual from a potentially triggering situation. Massage has been found to decrease depression and stereotypical problem behaviour in those with ASD.
The stimulation of the tactile system can create an opportunity for receiving foreign sensory information. This may assist the individual to experience the world more calmly, uninhibited by panic attacks and stress.
Methods for Designing a Remedy
I developed concepts for alleviating behavioural meltdowns through reviewing academic literature, first-hand ethnographic research and testing, and consultation & collaboration with behavioural clinicians.
To effectively allay sensory overload, criteria were created to optimise the massaging functionality, durability, tactility and materiality, culminating in a convenient and purposeful user experience. I evaluated these criteria at each design stage to ensure ideation and concept refinement aligned with them.
Serene Vibe features haptic engines, which massage the ears and scalp of the user. This massage coupled with the noise cancelling of ambient sound create a calmed environment and body.
A steel skeleton and steel hinges reinforce the design, which ensure a durable product. The frame, consisting of ABS plastic, can withstand severe use in various environments.
I used memory foam and silicone for the cushions to ensure comfort for long periods of use. The silicone is intended to mimic human touch and is calming due to the subconscious association of human touch with safety, developed as infants.
People with ASD have Deep Pressure Stimulation needs, which Serene Vibe meets not only using the haptic vibrations, but also through the tactile plates along the side. These plates are engaging touch points for the user, potentially distracting them from a novel event or environment.
The product is intended to be worn before a sensory overload event to have the best opportunity of promoting calm behaviour and to improve cognition of one's current environment. Depending on the user, they may require applied behaviour analysis (ABA) to acclimate to wearing a device. They may also require a carer's assistance to effectively utilise the massager.
The life of those with ASD can often be complicated and it can be hard for them to exist within society; however, design can change this. I believe that Serene Vibe has the potential to provide tremendous relief for all who struggle with sensory regulation.