by Noah Caplan
Two plywood boards, nearly four feet wide and over two feet tall, stand side by side. The inside face of each is covered in padding, creating a soft, narrow, open-topped tunnel with just enough space to crawl. An air compressor sits nearby, and with the help of a few ropes, pulleys, and an oddly shaped frame, the tunnel can be narrowed and widened at will2. When seeing this for the first time, many people have two questions they feel would be too impolite to ask: what is this monstrosity and why is it in a living room?
Its inventor, Dr. Temple Grandin, Ph.D., dubbed this bizarre device a "squeeze machine." She created the squeeze machine at the age of 18 in an attempt to fulfill her own desire for deep, even, pressure1. This desire is often very difficult to understand for those who don't experience it, but for those with autism, like Grandin, it's not uncommon1, 2. For me, this desire seems natural. I have Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism, and thus I'm very familiar with the differences between autism and "normality." Before proceeding further, I will, using my own personal experience, attempt to explain what Grandin's squeeze machine does and why it works.
Almost anyone can relate to the experience of having a "comfort zone" of what they are and are not comfortable doing. For some people, skydiving is so terrifying they would never attempt it; others find it enjoyable. However, it is often unclear what determines a comfort zone. The same skydiver could easily fear dogs, handshakes, or public restrooms. The boundaries of a comfort zone can seem random or irrational when viewed from the outside, but this does not make them any less real or important. Thus, I must ask the reader to accept on faith that an overwhelming quantity of information is outside the comfort zone of nearly everyone with Asperger's syndrome or autism because I am not able to objectively prove it.
Many people can be overwhelmed by too much information. Most people avoid overstimulation by "filtering out" what they don't want to observe. Faint sounds turn into background noise and numerous people together become a generic crowd. People have various methods for handling this overstimulation, but as I see it, these methods fall into two general categories which I'll call minimalizing and grouping.
The boundaries of a comfort zone can seem random or irrational when viewed from the outside, but this does not make them any less real or important.
By "minimalizing," I refer to ignoring weak, unpleasant stimuli in favor of strong, favorable ones. When someone is listening to one song and hears another that they enjoy more, they naturally ignore the first in favor of the second. Often, people forget that they do this. Quiet sounds are ignored, and people forget that they exist. I no longer notice the edge of my glasses when I look around. I feel the weight of my own hair on my head at all times, but I don't notice it because it's a minor stimulus that doesn't concern me. All of these are examples of minimalizing.
"Grouping," as I call it, consists of treating a large collection of random or complex information as "static" or "white noise" (although grouping, like minimalizing, can be done for all senses, not just noise). When I see fabric, I don't notice all the stitching unless I examine it closely. I just see it as "fabric". The sound of a dripping faucet is its own noise, but the sounds of ten thousand raindrops melds into a "grouped" noise.
The ability to group stimuli is limited. While detailed stitching easily turns into a single piece of fabric, rapidly repeated fireworks are very hard to turn into background noise. In general, when details become large enough, they pass some threshold (which varies from person to person) and become hard to ignore. For me, this threshold is at an unusually small scale. I'm often oversensitive to annoying noises that most people could ignore. I can remember being very uncomfortable being touched, and it was with great difficulty that I overcame this. I don't feel comfortable in crowds because it's hard for me to group people into a collective crowd. Overstimulation has always been a problem for me, especially when I was young. This overstimulation meant that I could not control my own life. I was overwhelmed by what I could not block out. The world around me continually felt like too much, and that took years to overcome.
But I have Asperger's syndrome, which is far milder than Grandin's autism. She experienced a much more extreme version of this, which she described while discussing why she created her squeeze machine:
As a child, I craved to feel the comfort of being held, but I would pull away when people hugged me. When hugged, an overwhelming tidal wave of sensation flowed through me. At times, I preferred such intense stimulation to the point of pain, rather than accept ordinary hugs. On the Ayres Checklist for Tactile Defensiveness (1979), I had 9 out of 15 symptoms by age 10 years. Whenever anyone touched me, I stiffened, flinched, and pulled away. This approach-avoidance characteristic endured for years during my childhood.
At puberty, anxiety and nervousness made me feel as though I was constantly in a state of "stage fright." While the nature of this anxiety was not diagnosed at the time, they have been retrospectively diagnosed as panic attacks, and would fulfill the DSM-III-R criteria1.
For me, it is intuitive that Grandin would feel a need for this squeeze machine. The continuous, firm, even pressure it applies from shoulders to knees is a single stimulation that makes others easier to ignore. While using the squeeze machine, Grandin is in total control of the pressure. She is face down while using it, so there's very little that she observes visually. It even holds her up, not by supporting a few points but by lifting evenly across her entire body, so she doesn't have to worry about supporting her own weight2. When used in the quiet of her own home, the squeeze machine creates a "clean slate," not only for the sense of touch but for sight and sound as well, wiping away all the uncontrolled details of the outside world and leaving behind only a single sensation of being held securely by an enveloping force of her own creation. Maybe Grandin considered all of this when she designed her squeeze machine, but I doubt it. I think she simply understood that experience which would make her comfortable and invented a machine to create it.
While her squeeze machine may be beneficial, it is not practical for the general public. It costs roughly $2,0003, it's difficult to move when fully constructed2, and most people would feel embarrassed if guests saw it sitting in their living room. They simply do not see the squeeze machine as a normal piece of furniture; it looks out of place among chairs, tables, and bookshelves. They see a strange, almost irrational group of boards arranged at odd angles with some unknown purpose, and this does not induce comfort and relaxation.
For Grandin, this was not an issue. Autistic people have a different sense of aesthetics than most, and the squeeze machine is an example of this. Its large, continuous shapes and plain colors give a sense of security to an autistic person who looks at it, rather than a sense of awkwardness in seeing something so unusual.
On the occasions when someone without autism has tried the squeeze machine, it has still been relaxing1. However, it's not useful to someone who won't use it. But, could the same or similar calming effect come from a different machine? Could a design exist that is lighter, more affordable, and, most importantly, aesthetically pleasing to both autistic and typical people?
MIT professor and artist Wendy Jacob is attempting to create just that. She calls her continually evolving invention a "squeeze chair" and has made the latest model available for public use at her art exhibit," Between Spaces," in room 338 of building 7 at MIT (as of November 2007). The present design is a foam cube with a space just large enough to sit cut out of the center. A foot pump inflates several connected air pockets in the chair, applying an even pressure from just above the knees up to the ribcage. Unlike Grandin's squeeze machine, the experience of which I attempted to describe only based on its blueprint, I have used Jacob's squeeze chair several times.
On October 19th, 2007, I met with Jacob to discuss her squeeze chairs and how she developed them. I had my own experience of what did and didn't work, and I wanted to know how the design choices were made and help by contributing my own ideas to her study.
I soon realized that Jacob is at a disadvantage when designing her squeeze chairs: she has neither Asperger's syndrome nor autism, so she does not have the same extra-sensitive experience in a squeeze chair. Even her skills as an artist are only helpful half the time. She can recognize on sight if the chair is aesthetically pleasing to her, but not to someone autistic. In the end, she wants a universal squeeze chair: one that's aesthetically pleasing, comfortable, and relaxing to anyone, autistic or typical. She knows about her own experience with the squeeze chairs, but she cannot, from her own subjective experience, gauge how aesthetically pleasing and relaxing they are to an autistic person.
Thus, Jacob designs her chairs the only way that she can: as a scientist. She must test various models, find out what does and doesn't work from someone autistic, gather data on success and failure, and look for patterns. Because she observes but does not experience autistic psychology, she can only try to guess at reasons for patterns she observes. This is the objective, scientific approach to knowledge.
I soon realized that Jacob is at a disadvantage when designing her squeeze chairs: so she has neither Asperger's syndrome nor autism, she does not have the same extra-sensitive experience in a squeeze chair.
However, there are limits to this objective approach. If a person spends 20 years studying every variety of strawberry in the world, learns where every kind of strawberry grows, learns the chemical composition of every kind of strawberry, and whatever else is available to objective study, then this person could still not be an expert on strawberries. Until this person tastes a strawberry, gaining subjective knowledge from the experience, he does not have complete knowledge. This is Jacob's limitation. A major subjective part of her research, the autistic experience of her squeeze chairs, must come from others.
I think I was able to add to the subjective part of her research. I experience the chairs as an Asperger, a halfway point between the autistic and typical perspectives. Hopefully, this means that I'm able to help Jacob reach her goal of creating a universal squeeze chair.
I think that the current appearance of the squeeze chair is inviting to both autistic and typical people. The covering is mostly a plain, continuous gray. The only exception is the fabric over the two air pockets that apply pressure to the front of the torso, which are a single bright color. The large, neat, continuous shapes are easy to look at; there's no danger of visual overstimulation. The strong contrast between the bright color and the gray background easily draws the attention of a person with a typical sense of aesthetics. This accomplishes what may be the most difficult part of designing a universal squeeze chair: making it universally aesthetically pleasing.
Once I sat down, however, I began to discover problems. There wasn't enough pressure around the hips. Since my hips weren't held in place and I had nowhere to brace my feet, I started to slouch. Then, the pressure on my abdomen increased uncomfortably and there wasn't enough pressure on my chest, so I had to straighten up again. This created a repeating cycle of fidgeting because the chair both encourages and punishes poor posture. Thus, I had to make a conscious effort to sit up straight.
Once I deliberately improved my posture, my shoulders and neck became completely free. This was another problem. One of the key features of Grandin's original squeeze machine was that the slightly angled walls held up its user, so no attention went to holding oneself up. When most of my torso is held, I instinctively relax. However, I have no good way to rest my head and shoulders. Leaning down to the top of the squeeze chair quickly makes my back stiff. Thus, I have to support my head, neck, and shoulders myself while I instinctively want to relax my spine. This constantly demands my attention. It's an unrelaxing stimulus that directs my attention away from the intended relaxing experience.
Even if I could sit comfortably without putting any attention on my position, it would still be hard for me to use the squeeze chair by myself. When I use the foot pump from a sitting position, I shift around in the chair, which is uncomfortable under pressure. I think one person should be capable of using the squeeze chair alone. Otherwise, it's just not as accessible.
The reason why it's so difficult for me to use the squeeze chair is that the present design was intended to require two people. Jacob wanted one person to sit in the chair and someone else to use the foot pump, but I think this is a bad idea. When someone else uses the foot pump, I'm not in control of the pressure. Grandin's squeeze machine gave the user total control of the pressure. When that's lost, the pressure, as relaxing as it may be, becomes an uncontrolled outside stimulus.
Despite all these drawbacks, using Jacob's squeeze chairs is still a relaxing experience for me. My hips and shoulders don't get the pressure they need, but my thighs and torso do. This relaxes me. It's strenuous to pump the squeeze chair myself from a sitting position, but once the air pockets are inflated, I don't need to use the foot pump again for fifteen or twenty minutes. The squeeze chairs, in their present state, are effective and have great potential for improvement. I look forward to the final result, and I think I've helped Jacob get there.
- 1 Grandin, Temple. "Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals." Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology. Volume 2, Number 1, 1992, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., Publishers.
- 2 Grandin, Temple. Schematic details of the squeeze machine. 29 October 2007.
- 3 Personal interview with Wendy Jacob on 19 October 2007.