In the mid-'60s, the animal behavior expert, autism sufferer, and all-around genius, Temple Grandin, created the "hug box." The device was a response to what she knew about her condition: enveloping pressure, like a hug, calmed her. But she didn’t like anyone too close. The box, which she used until about 2008, was a v-shaped space created from two boards covered with fake fur and rubber. Grandin would get inside, and increase the squeeze, sometimes staying a long time.
"At age 18, I constructed the squeeze machine to help calm down the anxiety and panic attacks," she later wrote. "Using the machine for 15 minutes would reduce my anxiety for up to 45-60 minutes. The relaxing effect was maximized if the machine was used twice a day."
James Teh’s version of the squeeze machine is different from Grandin’s, but shares some characteristics. A jacket rather than a box, it also applies pressure when children are over-agitated. And, most ingeniously, it does it by remote control. Teachers, caregivers, and even parents many miles away can give a "hug" when needed, using an app on their smartphone. The pressure comes from small pockets of air in the shoulders and abdomen linked to embedded electronics. You can set the T.Jacket to soft, medium, and strong pressure, depending on how your child is feeling.
Teh, who runs a company in Singapore called T.Ware, says the jacket is lightweight, unobtrusive, and otherwise normal. The only difference is the discrete inner layer, which also contains a motion sensor to gauge frustration. When kids are flailing their arms around, indicating anxiety, adults receive an alert, prompting them to apply pressure.
"Some children like pressure, but they don’t like people touching them. A neutral object like the jacket can provide a sensory intervention," Teh says.
It can also help teachers and therapists manage groups of autistic children better, he adds. "A lot of caregivers find it hard to look after children, because there are few effective tools to manage them when they become hyperactive or start screaming. What we hope with this is that a single teacher can help multiple children."
Trials have also shown that autistic kids sometimes become interested in the jacket, and want to use the app themselves. "We have seen situations where they give themselves the pressure, and this is highly encouraging, because it means they are being independent and taking care of themselves."
Teh, who has a Ph.D. in human-computer engineering from the National University of Singapore, hopes to have the jacket ready by this September. Dozens of therapists and parents have already pre-ordered the system, which costs $399 in its current version.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of autism sufferers. One in 100 children around the world have some version of the condition, and the rate has been growing steadily in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control recently said that 1 in 50 schoolchildren had autism spectrum disorder, up from 1 in 87 in 2007. That’s a lot of kids needing hugs.