An innovative, interactive toy designed by a Victoria University student could soon be helping children with autism to learn positive play behaviours and stimulate their imaginations.
“Kids on the autism spectrum find it difficult to play,” says Helen Andreae, who came up with the idea in the final year of her Honours degree under the supervision of lecturers Tim Miller and Edgar Rodriguez Ramirez. “They find it hard to interact with other children because they often don’t understand how they should control their voice and body, and they experience great difficulty using their imaginations to develop even the simplest fictional scenarios.”
Helen says the fluffy toy – known as ‘Auti’ – uses sound and motion sensors to help children develop their speaking, touching and collaborative skills. Auti shuts down in response to any negative behaviours such as hitting or screaming, but quickly responds to the slightest positive interaction such as speaking gently or stroking. “It gives children a safe way to learn positive play behaviours without social risk,” she explains.
Now onto her fourth prototype, and with user trials about to start, Helen is determined to develop her original concept into a product that will reach, and therefore benefit, the market it’s been designed to help. She says that Viclink’s early support to help develop her original concept into a first prototype was really valued. “I simply wouldn’t have come this far without Viclink’s encouragement,” says Helen, who is currently studying for a Masters in Psychology, and using her thesis to scientifically validate Auti’s efficacy. “Since the earliest days, they’ve helped me with everything from advice, contacts and professional development training, through to seed funding which I used to develop the prototypes.”
She says that Dr Anne Barnett (Viclink’s Senior Commercialisation Manager) is still providing invaluable insight and input to the development process, most recently teaming her up with students on the Masters of Advanced Technology Enterprise (MATE) programme. “The students were looking for a real-life development project to work on, and I needed some extra resource to help with intellectual property and marketing tasks, so it was win-win!” she says.