The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Students design mobile autism clinic

The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design hosted an exhibition and judging event Aug. 1 for 13 students who created interior and exterior designs for a custom-made van that the institute will purchase for use as a mobile clinic.

The project was the sole focus of a special topics course developed by the Department of Architecture and Interior Design in partnership with the institute.

Dee Nicholas, instructor of the course, said that Craig Newschaffer and Lindsay Lawer, respectively the director and senior manager of the institute, approached the department with the idea of having students design the van. Nicholas said she was very pleased with the quality of the final products.

“It’s been interesting to see the range of techniques and thoughts and ideas that the students have brought to the project,” Nicholas said.

The students had to ensure that their designs would satisfy all the functional requirements of a vehicle that clinical researchers will use as a space to evaluate children from birth to age 12 throughout the greater Philadelphia area. Among other requirements, the van’s interior needed to be wheelchair-accessible, have ample storage space, and minimize sights and sounds that might easily distract children with autism. The students also sought to craft their designs around visual themes that relate to autism.

A panel of local autism experts judged the four designs at the event. The winning team of Grace Lam, Alexis Siriani and Yoshie Takeo based their design on the theme of each individual’s life journey. Siriani said she drew inspiration from 13 years of experience as a pediatric physical therapist working with children on the autism spectrum and as a mother of a child with special needs.

“The level of courage and sheer willpower that the kids I have worked with exemplify never ceases to amaze me. They taught me that no matter what obstacles you must face in life, there is always a way,” Siriani said.

The runners-up were Christine Webb, Fay Leff and Shannon Prutzman. The theme of their design was sensory integration, one of the fundamental goals of treating children with autism. The features of their design are intended to facilitate sensory integration for children who exhibit unusually high or low levels of reaction to sensory stimuli.

“Treatment with a focus on sensory integration seems to be the most beneficial, as it helps the brain to register senses simultaneously,” Webb said.

The team of Stephanie Heucke, Ilana McLean, Maureen McMenamin and Lauren Young titled their design “Adaptable Submersion.” The interior and exterior of their design featured an aquatic color scheme, which McMenamin explained was inspired by studies that have shown the calming effects of aquatic therapy on children with autism.

“We think an adaptable submerged environment is designed to soothe those who enter with its cool and neutral palette, textures and lighting, and we focused on features such as privacy and acoustical controls to create a space that will calm while positively stimulating the participant to focus and interact socially,” McMenamin said.

Miguel Vargas, Blanca Arzayus and Hattan Bakhit based their design on the theme of butterfly metamorphosis to show how butterflies symbolize children with autism in many ways.

“The butterfly is about metamorphosis and change and really getting to a better place,” Vargas said.

His group’s exterior design features three ribbons that follow seemingly random paths around the van and align with each other at the end of their path. According to Vargas, the ribbons symbolize the uniqueness of every case of autism and the changes that every child with autism undergoes.

All four groups did a great deal of research on autism so that they would understand the common needs of children with autism and be able to accommodate these needs in all aspects of their designs. Bakhit said this was one of the most challenging requirements of the project.

“It’s quite a challenge to think about all these needs and to make them more comfortable in this environment,” Bakhit said.

According to a July 19 Drexel press release, the van that the institute orders in the fall will include the best aspects of each group’s design.