U-M architect and an associate professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Sean Ahlquist with MSU playwright Dionne O'Dell created a sensory theater experience for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) challenges. Ahlquist has sought out solutions to help initially his daughter with her autism, by learning more about her specific needs, and the way that she interacts with the world around her.
Being one of the few architects in the world to create structures out of textiles using a computer-controlled industrial knitting machine, Ahlquist decided to use his computational design knowledge and material systems expertise to create a soft, stretchy surface for kids with ASD to interact with.
"I kept thinking about the idea of introducing this unique architectural environment to children in a new way—what if we present a storyline for how they might experience it at the same time?" -- Sean Ahlquist, associate professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture.
The first version generated was called "Stretch|Color," a 2D surface with a black-and-white image projected onto it. By applying pressure to different parts of the image, one could digitally color it, as if one was on a computer program coloring with the click of a mouse. After this first version, a 3D more developed structure was created, serving as a focal point for a play, written and directed by Dionne O'Dell, a faculty member in MSU's theater department, and aiming to create a participatory theater experience for children with autism. O'Dell has been working in children's theater, for more than 30 years, focusing lately on creating new approaches to help kids with ASD.
"Each child that has autism is different, but what many have in common is that 60-90% of them have a hyper-awareness to sensory stimuli. Some kids are very sensitive to loud sounds or bright lights while others, like Ara, respond enthusiastically to strong tactile sensations. Receiving pressure, like being wrapped in a heavy blanket, excites her, allowing us to turn her hypersensitivity into a beneficial tool for reinforcing play and social interaction." -- Sean Ahlquist, associate professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
This partnership, joining the disciplines of architecture and theater, has created new possibilities in the realm of sensory performance and presentation. Ahlquist’s sensory structures have already been used in schools, museums, and other public spaces.
"Because of her limited motor skills, my daughter isn't able to participate in the kinds of activities that many other kids her age generally do, which actually limits her opportunities for social engagement. The structure allows her to practice both movement behaviors and social interaction at the same time—and I think that the addition of theater will be even more impactful." -- Sean Ahlquist, associate professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture.
"Many companies are starting to offer sensory-friendly performances that are more relaxed, with adjusted lighting and sound, along with actors and ushers that are trained in dealing with neurodiverse audiences" "And while there have been many productions that have been adapted to be sensory-friendly, my goal is to create a play specifically for this audience from the ground up." -- Dionne O'Dell, writer, and director, a faculty member in MSU's theater department.
News via the University of Michigan.