New Technology and New Clothing for People with Autism

06/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Recently Brian Mullen, an engineering student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, won the school's Technology Innovation Challenge by inventing a new kind of Deep Pressure vest. Autistic children, their parents, and adults with mental illnesses may be inclined to rejoice. Says Mullen, as quoted on

"People with developmental disorders and mental illness are often overwhelmed in everyday environments such as school and the workplace, and solutions available to families and mental health professionals are limited. This is an alternative therapy that can safely and discreetly provide the treatment they need to function in mainstream society."

Mullen's vest looks pretty much like any down vest you'd want to buy, whether at the Gap or at Diesel (though Diesel might not agree with that characterization). But it provides a sort of mechanical hug that calms those who are experiencing sensory overload. It's a solution that Dr. Temple Grandin, who wrote the book Talking in Pictures, came across in her observation of cattle as young girl. As a teenager with autism, Grandin developed something called a Hug Machine, or Squeeze Machine, to calm her down when she was overstimulated. The machine was something she was able to regulate herself rather than having a caregiver modulate the pressure -- something Mullen's vest will also allow the wearer to do.

Personally, I don't need that kind of vest, but I am interested in something else Mullen says he'll be working on: weighted blankets. I have a lot of sleep-related trouble, mostly related to medications. Lately, I've been struggling with extrapyramidal side effects due to Seroquel, a pill I take to prevent psychotic episodes. In its most benign form, the side effect feels like there's something crawling beneath my skin and I have to move my legs to shake it out. But it gets worse as I get tired. My muscles contract. My jaw clenches. I twitch and jerk. I feel like I can't take one more minute. The longer I've been on the Seroquel, the worse it's gotten. But the alternatives -- Abilify, Geodon -- supposedly cause similar issues, so my psychiatrist and I are discussing options.

Meanwhile, I've been falling in love with the website for Salt of the Earth Weighted Gear, which offers blankets filled with stones. I've found that having extra weight on me is one of the only sensations that works to ease my symptoms, so I'm psyched to discover that I can choose how heavy I want the blanket to be, and decide if I want it to have planets or frogs or sparkly thread or whatever pretty pattern I want. They've got a lot to choose from.

There's also a six-foot-long Lycra sensory tunnel I could crawl in, but I feel like my roommate might be a little freaked out if I was worming into it while we watched TV at night. I think I'll stick with the blankets -- and Mullen's vest, when it hits Target.