Enter the maze

Wanting to scream and scream and scream

by Jane Waite and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Hands reaching out for a scared woman: copyright www.istockphoto.com 44661334

Here's a horror story. Your familiar, friendly home suddenly becomes alien and overwhelming. Everything around you moves and is menacing. Wall paper patterns spin and change. The light is too bright to bear. Sounds are magnified. Background noises fill your hearing. A dripping tap thuds, a tapping finger cracks like a whip by your ear, over and over again, the cat flap slaps, the sofa drums (bang, bang, bang, ...) it's never stopping, all beating together against you. Sirens go off all around, the clock is so loud and repetitive it makes you feel sick. Your senses are being attacked and you can't escape. It just makes you want to scream for it to go away, so you scream and scream and scream...

It isn't just a nightmare. Many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) suffer from 'sensory sensitivity' which in its worst cases is something like that. They process everyday sights, sounds, smells and touch differently. It varies a lot from person to person. They might see an object as blurred, magnified or fragmented. They might hear a sound only in one ear, not be able to cut out background sounds or not hear some sounds. Touch might be desensitised or hypersensitive. Tastes and smells might be either overpowering or dampened. We don't all sense the world the same.

The more we understand what its like, the greater chance we have of helping: of designing for people with autism. A human computer interface expert's job is to focus on the way we use a system, the way we sense it, experience it, working out how best to display information, how best to capture what is needed to make it work for people. They don't have to just design for the majority though, if the people who might use the gadget or software they are designing have special needs then they need to design for those needs too. And sometimes those designs turn out to be wonderful for everyone else too. Drop kerbs were introduced to help people with wheelchairs, but they help people with pushchairs too. Car central locking was invented for people with mobility problems but we all love it now. Perhaps we can design with and for people with autism.

Watch a video showing to get an idea of what sensory sensitivity is like from the National Autistic Society.

Virtual fish

Many children with autism are calmed by watching the fish in an aquarium. The fish have the opposite effect to sensory overload. Unfortunately you can't take an aquarium out with you though. Perhaps, computer scientists can help. Augmented reality is the idea of projecting the virtual world on to the real world. Many cars now have head-up displays, superimposing information like directions on the road ahead. More futuristic versions involve goggles or contact lenses that add information to the world you see, telling you more about the things you look at. Want to know the way to the Emerald City? Then follow the yellow brick road that appears when you wear your glasses.

Maybe someone can make some cool augmented reality glasses for children with autism, not to give them more information but to help them cope. Perhaps something as simple as having glasses that place a virtual fishtank in the corner of every room would help...or maybe having fish swimming around the room as if you are in a fish tank would be better still? Perhaps having glasses that sense stress and automatically darken to cut problems out would help better. Who knows...unless someone works with the children who need the help, does the evaluation and builds something that works for them. Perhaps that person is you.