In homes in which a family member has autism, day-to-day tasks can be challenging. One family is now trying to solve some of those issues, by pairing up with engineering students from the University of Connecticut.
In the autism community, there’s a saying: If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.
“My son is 18. He has severe autism and he’s nonverbal,” said Darlene Borré, who lives with her son Ben in West Hartford.
Borré said for parents of children with severe autism, talking about the challenges of daily living can sometimes be hard.
“Because it’s very vulnerable to discuss some of these topics,” Borré said. “Our type of autism is messy. It’s sometimes dangerous.”
Ben is over 6 feet tall and weighs 250 pounds. Borré said he can be impulsive around food, so it's a challenge to keep him from getting into the refrigerator unsupervised. He also might break glass and try to eat around it, running the risk of accidentally cutting himself, or he might overstuff on food and choke.
Borré said child locks don’t work to keep Ben safe.
“Right now we have a titanium bike lock. So every time we open the refrigerator, we have to undo the bike lock,” Borré said. “You can’t imagine how time-consuming that is, or maybe a younger member of our family will leave it open.”
Many families are living with someone identified as having autism spectrum disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s about 1 in 59 children in the United States. Of those, about one-third don’t use spoken language reliably.
Borré says the day-to-day challenges of caring for people with a spectrum of complicated needs can sometimes make families feel hopeless. But as she walked through a room filled with dozens of UConn students in December, Borré said she felt hopeful.
The event was a science fair where students -- future engineers and computer scientists -- showed off their designs to improve products for people with autism.
The projects aimed to solve problems Borré had presented the students earlier in the year.
“It was really nice of Darlene to come and present … these problems that this community faces,” said freshman engineering major Jackson Chard. “It kind of goes under the radar.”
Chard and his team showed Borré their design for an improved fridge lock. It featured a dowel pin for easy access during mealtime and a more high-tech keypad for times when there’s less traffic in the kitchen.
“It’s a dual security system,” said freshman engineering major Andrew Tureaud. “We decided to go with ‘low-tech’ … You don’t have to depend on using a smart fridge with a front screen on it to access the [refrigerator].”
Also on display was an app that helps caregivers find family restrooms when they’re traveling; a potential problem when caregivers are a different gender from the person with autism. Another group worked on a shower and tub guard that would prevent bathroom overflows by connecting to a timer on an iPad.
The projects are a collaboration between UConn’s Service Learning program and the School of Engineering. Dan Burkey, an associate dean at UConn, said the idea is to bring “elegant” engineering to underserved consumers.
“When you look at how products are designed and marketed, very often they are not designed or marketed with certain vulnerable demographics in mind,” Burkey said. “They really are targeted towards what we consider the average consumer.”
Many of the projects are ideas, not full-blown prototypes. But Burkey said the time is right for engineers to take those ideas and help serve niche markets.
“The fact that it’s much easier to prototype and bring things to market now with things like additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping -- means that those solutions can come to market a lot faster and at a lot lower cost,” Burkey said.
Darlene Borré said transforming those ideas into real solutions gives people like her son more independence.
“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,” Borré said. “Sometimes all that takes is a design change.”