Stevens Undergraduates Design Therapeutic Toy

3/24/2014

The countless toys available specifically for children with autism typically focus on one aspect of a child’s development, and none has a feedback mechanism. That is about to change, thanks to a group of Stevens’ senior design students and their project to develop a therapeutic toy.

Mechanical engineers Walter Goodwin, James McMahon, Abdel Aziz A’goan and Jay Thakore have designed a toy with interchangeable panels that centers on sensory and motor skill development.

“We have all known kids with autism,” says Jay Thakore. “We thought there must be a way to help them complete an everyday activity—a toy with good feedback—would be a good way of doing something to alleviate their condition.”

The box-like toy works when a child moves a peg from top-to-bottom, setting off an LED signal that they have completed the path. In another activity, the child has one minute to illuminate as many colored LED push buttons as possible. The lights help develop hand-eye coordination, sensory and motor skills. The toy has interchangeable panels to vary the difficulty and further develop these skills, which involves more decision-making.

According to Thakore, the feedback system is much more accurate and more detailed as compared to other specialized toys. “We have cameras that watch the face to monitor their facial expressions and determine where they get stuck,” says Thakore.  “We can see when they get frustrated and how they react.”

The team will test the toy at two special needs schools, and plan to write a journal article about their results.

Already, King Abdulla University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia invited the team—one of 50 groups selected—to present and participate in a research competition for engineering-based projects.

“It wasn’t as much about the competition, but more about getting feedback from the best professors from around the world,” says Thakore. “They gave us great suggestions.”

They also presented the project to a group of high school girls on Women in Engineering Day.

“We talked about engineering as a profession, and what we can do at Stevens—the opportunities we have here,” explains Thakore. “We wanted to show them what you can do in the field of engineering to make them more interested in becoming an engineer.”

Team member Walter Goodwin also describes the project as a unique opportunity to make an impact on the autistic community. 

“Ultimately, we hope to have a positive effect on as many autistic families as possible,” says Goodwin.  “After preliminary testing is completed within the next month, we hope to receive feedback that will allow us to improve the product and satisfy any unmet needs.” 

“The team of the four senior mechanical engineering students working on this project has been very effective in addressing every aspect of this multifaceted project,” says faculty advisor Danial Shahmirzadi, visiting assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “Whether it’s the psychological relevance, mechanical engineering design aspects, toy’s aesthetics, human subject protection assurance, and on–site experimentation of the toy on autistic kids.”

The team hopes the toy will one day make its way into the marketplace for therapists and doctors to use in evaluating an autistic child’s development, and to improve their motor and sensory skills.

“Even after graduation we hope to continue the development of our project, and possibly present the product to toy manufacturers,” says Goodwin.

I look forward to further development of this toy as an ongoing project, which will certainly make an impact on real life of autistic children in the near future,” says Shahmirzadi.

This project will be displayed at the Stevens Innovation Expo held on April 30th on the Stevens campus, an annual, one-day, campus-wide event, which displays the extensive research and innovation accomplishments of faculty and students.