Haptic Feedback Writing Utensil for Children with Autism


My son has been such an inspiration to me as a designer. At age 4, he was diagnosed with Autism. Together with the diagnosis, the doctors provided a copy of the book, “1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Over the coming months I would dutifully search that book and other resources for solutions that seemed to apply to our challenges.

At the time of his diagnosis I had never heard or seen him write his name. In fact, he would refuse to even hold a crayon due to frustration. So when I read about using a vibrating pen to supplement tactile sensory input, I figured it was worth a try.  For about $10 on Amazon, I bought the Squiggle Wiggle Writer. 51aw1WBg7+L._SX355_

Much to my surprise, the first time my son held the Squiggle Wiggle Writer, he began writing out his name correctly: O-L-I-V-E-R

I remember getting chills and thinking to myself, “You’ve been holding out on us! You have known how to spell your name this whole time?! And this $10 toy is all it took?!”

A few weeks later his preschool teacher pulled me aside and said, “I don’t know what happened. But Ollie is actually coloring and writing as well as all the other children in the class.” I informed her that this newfound ability is thanks to the Squiggle Wiggle Writer. (Insert picture of teacher with jaw dropped here)

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Oliver’s first ever handwriting. Thank you Squiggle Wiggle Writer!

I will forever be grateful for the Squiggle Wiggle Writer. But its benefits were really a happy accident. The Industrial Designer in me knew that a better sensory experience specifically suited for the needs of children with Autism could be created. This drove me to pursue my Masters of Mechanical Engineering at CU-Boulder, where I devoted much of my course studies to the development of assistive technology for Autism. I focused on empowering handwriting to both leverage my own family’s insight and because handwriting is fundamental to lifelong independence.

Autism and Sensory Integration Difficulties can negatively impact fine motor skills. In such cases individuals rely more on gross motor skills. This lowered dexterity can lead to gripping a writing utensil with a “fist grip” or “pronated grip”, diminishing their handwriting ability.

Ideally, a student learning to write will hold the pencil with their finger tips to utilize full dexterity. While there are a few variations on effective grips, a typical proper grip is the “dynamic tripod grip” achieved with three fingers: thumb, index, and middle finger.

Enabling children to achieve a “dynamic tripod grip” was the main need addressed in development. Keeping true to the effectiveness of the Squiggle Wiggle Writer, vibration provided the stimulus needed.

Proof of concept prototypes were simple – 2 AAA batteries attached to a small eccentric mass motor that would turn on when three finger pads were squeezed. As long as all three were gripped, the pen provided mild vibration. Even in its simplest form, the physical and cognitive human factors proved viable. Once children knew the pen would vibrate when gripped on all three sides, it became an incentive to achieve that grip!

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Early concept development sketches

With the help of David Rappaport, a highly talented and dedicated Electrical Engineer, the product functionality was achieved with sensor technology and microprocessor. This allowed us to design features that would capture insights to user behavior and track progress for educators and therapists. By capturing the grip patterns, users behavior could be characterized according effectiveness.

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Oliver using an early prototype of capacitive sensors driving haptic feedback.

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3D CAD Assembly of the final design

The project lives on now thanks to David’s leadership in Microsoft’s Advanced Concepts Group and their open source technology platform. The hope is that by providing the basic technology, this device will enable many more children to learn to write, express themselves through artistic abilities, and ultimately hold the key to their own lifelong independence.