OTO: The Hugging Chair Designed to Comfort People with Autism
People with autism are often extra sensitive to sensory input. Sounds, lights, visuals, scents, flavors, and physical sensations build upon each other until they’re too overwhelming to bear, provoking a panicked reaction. As autistic researcher and author Temple Grandin discovered, applying pressure to the body makes it possible to focus on a single powerful sensation, drowning out the others for a calming effect. Her creation, which she calls the “squeeze machine,” clamps down on the person inside, who can control the force and duration of the pressure with a lever.
As helpful as it is, Grandin’s squeeze machine isn’t exactly easy to integrate into the average home or public space. So when designer Audrain Alexia was challenged to produce a piece of furniture that meets a real unmet need, she decided to adapt Grandin’s active, customizable pressure concept into a chair she calls OTO. This modern armchair looks similar to high-back privacy chairs, with a top that curves over the user’s head but incorporates inner walls that inflate to apply deep pressure to the chest or legs.
Designed to mimic the “squeeze machine” but in the form of “more aesthetic, less stigmatizing furniture,” the OTO chair has a remote with + and – signs to inflate or deflate the cells. Its cocoon-like shape grants the user a sense of privacy and safety while also muffling external sounds. People with autism seeking the calming effect of deep pressure might usually try to achieve it with an intense hug, a passive weighted blanket, or even by asking someone else to lay on top of them, but these solutions either require the help of a companion or a private place to lay down. OTO, on the other hand, looks enough like normal furniture to offer discreet relief, even if it were installed in places like lobbies and workspaces.
Created during Alexia’s studies as a cabinetmaker and designer, OTO was developed with the assistance of educators who work with autistic people and the input of autistic people themselves. Alexia spent a year and a half researching the therapeutic effects of pressure, creating prototypes and testing them before coming up with the final design. The chair has been tested in the child psychiatry department of PR Bonnet-Brilhault, a French autism research center, since January 2021.
“The integration of users in the design process allowed me to improve the user experience and focus on noise or light emitted by the chair and understand what could be an issue for a person with an autism spectrum disorder,” Alexia says. “This approach will help me to produce furniture that is useful, usable, and used in the long term. For people with autism who are sensitive to touch, a sensoriality course has been carried out. This decor composed of different materials such as wool felt or soft resin brings a graphic design to the armchair. Pastel colors have been chosen with care for their calming effect. The interior trim is fully removable and its velvet fabric is machine washable.”
The OTO chair is currently undergoing additional testing in various environments to fine-tune its effectiveness, and Alexia hopes that it will be commercially available by September 2022. The design was named among the top 20 international entries in the 2021 James Dyson Awards.