Chair that Blue Valley students helped create for kids with autism may be headed to market

By Dugan Arnett, Kansas City Star, May 07, 2015

Pictured is a young boy enjoying sitting in the Sensory Lounger.

A new high-tech chair designed to soothe children with autism got a
tryout recently from 5-year-old Jeron Lippman of Kansas City. The
chair is designed by engineering students from the Blue Valley
Center for Advanced Professional Studies. Jeron tried out the chair
during the Just Be You Walk for Autism held in April at Sporting
Park in Kansas City, Kan. (Photo by Susan Pfannmuller/KC Star)

In the year and a half or so since students in a Blue Valley school district engineering program helped bring it to fruition, the Sensory Lounger has enjoyed quite a run.

The high-tech chair, which The Star wrote about last year, has warranted significant attention across the Kansas City area recently. And last month, the project received a prestigious Edison Award for health and wellness innovation. (For context, products from Motorola, the Dow Chemical Co. and Gillette also were honored.)

Now, the man behind the chair — which provides the kind of full-body, deep-touch pressure many children with autism crave — has even bigger plans.

Stuart Jackson, a local businessman and driving force behind the project who has worked closely with the students in the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) program, recently formed a business, the Sensory Chair Co., with an eye toward getting the chairs to market.

This summer, he’ll offer a number of paid internships to members of the CAPS program in an effort to produce enough chairs to begin undergoing testing for safety and effectiveness. There are plans, too, to hire on several people with autism to aid in the process.

Jackson opted to announce the company’s launch at the American Occupational Therapy Association conference in Nashville, Tenn. In his eyes, those in attendance represented the perfect focus group, and when it became clear that their feedback was highly positive, Jackson says, it helped solidify his belief that the chair could benefit children on a widespread scale.

“If they didn’t like it, then it wouldn’t be worthwhile proceeding with taking the Sensory Lounger to market,” Jackson says. “But ... there were lots of (occupational therapists) who knew of patients or students who would deeply benefit from the Sensory Lounger.”

The chair, which those involved tout as different from anything else available, is meant to provide a calming effect to children with autism, many of whom are prone to maladaptive behaviors such as self-injurous behavior or meltdowns. It features two inflatable air cylinders and a sophisticated pump and pressure-sensor system that produce persistent deep-touch pressure, approximating a tight and continuous full-body hug.

For Jackson, whose son, Joshua, is on the severe end of the autism spectrum, the project has also taken on a personal significance.

The idea serves as a reimagining of a machine devised by Colorado professor Temple Grandin — dubbed the “squeeze machine” — after she noticed the calming effect that applied pressure had on cattle. Curious as to whether a cheaper, more practical machine might be possible, Jackson approached the CAPS program, which set about trying to create Jackson’s vision.

From its earliest stages, there were signs that the group was onto something.

At a local elementary school last spring, where the group took a crude model to be tested, it became immediately apparent that the chair accomplished what it set out to.

“Literally within 30 seconds of testing, I knew that it was probably going to be a big deal,” said Keith Manbeck, an instructor with the CAPS program. “As soon as a kid got in it, it was like, ‘Holy cow; this is important.’”Each step since has only served to reinforce that belief.

In conversations with occupational therapists, as well as teachers and parents of those with autism, the feedback has been almost unanimously positive.

“It’s one thing to build something and just kind of get it out there,” says Austin Edmondson, a senior at Blue Valley Northwest who next year plans to study mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. “It’s another thing to build something and see the results.”

Now, it’s simply a matter of doing the legwork necessary to take the next step.

This summer, the graduating CAPS students will be hired to build enough chairs to enable a multicenter research trial. CAPS students who aren’t set to graduate, meanwhile, will continue working on another iteration of the chair.

Currently, Jackson is in discussions with a local university to set the parameters of what he says will be a rigorous study. He has spoken with potential investors and advisers about how best to introduce the product, and is also in the process of determining how the business’s ownership structure might look.

“We’re still working out the details, and in discussions with the Blue Valley CAPS program,” Jackson said.

At its heart, though, Jackson envisions the project as a social venture, and in that regard, he plans this summer to hire some people with autism to contribute.

“We’ve made it part of our social mission to be an autism-friendly employer,” he says. “To this end, we’re working with transition specialists and job coaches to identify candidates for three to four part-time positions that we will be offering over the summer.”

Assuming the study yields favorable results, meanwhile, Jackson would be one step closer to his ultimate goal, which is to get the Sensory Lounger inside as many therapy centers, classrooms and homes as possible.

Ideally, Jackson says, he’d like to get the chair to market by the end of the year. Multiple factors, he concedes, will ultimately determine whether that’s possible, but the feedback so far has left him optimistic that it’s only a matter of time.

On a Saturday morning last month, for instance, during the first-annual Just Be You Walk for Autism held at Sporting Park, a steady stream of children — many of them somewhere on the autism spectrum — wandered toward a model of the Sensory Lounger for a test-run.

One by one, the children nestled into the chair, and as their parents looked on, sat calmly and quietly as the Sensory Lounger worked its magic.

“He’s so chill,” marveled Alison Anderson, as her 6-year-old son, Max, sat nestled in one of the two models on hand.

For Jackson, who looked on, the response served as yet another example of the product’s potential.

And with a plan in place — as well as a team of students devoted to a project that has already garnered national attention — the future, at least at the moment, appears promising.

“Without (the CAPS program), it would have just remained an idea, a frustration that exists within my family and in that of many others around the world,” Jackson says.

“And now, it’s on the verge of being a potential solution to families across the world.”

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