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It is widely accepted that individuals on the autistic spectrum have difficulties with social interaction and communication; the unusual sensory functioning that they are known to experience can occur in any modality and often result in a perception of the physical world that is fragmented, alarming and so is very different from non-autistic people. This can lead to high levels of fear and anxiety and a lack of empathy with others.

This paper will document part of the Reactive Colours design research project, which has been developing customisable software to engage the unique sensory interests of children on the autistic spectrum. The benefits of computers for autistic people are well documented. Reactive Colours extends this research by specifically developing experiential software to promote relaxation, encourage spontaneous play, and support learning, all of which can be impaired in the multi-sensory environments of the real world. The software introduces the notion of reactive interaction rather than the purposeful, functional interaction typical of traditional digital interfaces. Through exploration with the software the computer becomes a playful tactile response mechanism, capable of simulating the sensory characteristics of phenomena such as elasticity, velocity, gravity and inertia, with no potential for failure.

Developing an ethnographic, theoretically informed approach to design has ensured that the entire process from early concept development through to the qualitative and empirical evaluation strategies, has been informed by the distinct needs and characteristics of the target population. A continuous process of design has evolved, as each phase of development builds on the experience of people using the software in their own settings and the expertise of an interdisciplinary team of collaborators. The methodology has enabled the designers to efficiently and economically adapt to the unexpected; modifications have been made and invention has prospered because of the mobility of context.

The paper will focus on how Reactive Colours sensory software is being used on interactive whiteboards with young autistic children in a number of UK schools. Whereas the conventional view maintains that educational technology should be interactive, Reactive Colours offers tangible interfaces as an embodied play activity. The benefit of this approach, I argue, is that it elicits outward expression of inner sensation and, as such, encourages greater bodily awareness in autistic children who experience distorted or even disconnected relationship with their body due to proprioceptive and vestibular sensory disorders. The interactive whiteboard removes the necessity to manage control in a confined space and, in so doing, removes by the impediment to bodily expression created by the confined spaces of traditional interfaces.


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