At first glance, you probably wouldn’t peg Sean Ahlquist as a knitter. The 46-year-old University of Michigan professor often teaches in a hoodie and sneakers, his hair in a messy-but-polished style that wouldn’t seem out of place on one of his students. But then, Sean’s knitting isn’t of the baby booties and itchy scarves variety. Sean is an architect – one of the few in the world who builds structures not out of brick or steel, but with textiles made on a computer-controlled industrial knitting machine.

The computational design and material systems expert was first introduced to the machine a decade ago, while he was doing his PhD at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. His work there focused primarily on pre-stressed tensile structures – constructions that carry tension without bending – such as the tent-like roof at the Denver International Airport or London’s Millennium Dome. Those edifices were made by stitching multiple pieces of material together. With the knitting machine, Sean can make similar structures all in one piece – no cutting or sewing needed.

When Sean joined the University of Michigan as an assistant professor of architecture in 2012, he and a colleague in the school’s aerospace department campaigned to bring one of the knitting machines to the university. For the next two years, Sean painstakingly perfected his designs, developing custom textiles, then stretching them over flexible rods to create three-dimensional objects. “Like the clothing you wear, the materials have an intricate tactile quality. Intuitively, you’re provoked to feel and run your hand across it, to grab it and push it and pull it,” he says.

But when he showed off his 3D designs to people, he was puzzled by their reactions. Here were these large, objects made from stretchy fabric, contorted into twisted and curved surfaces, but because it was called architecture, no one thought to touch it. Instead they treated it like a piece of art, admiring it from a distance. They didn’t get it. But he knew someone who might.

Connecting the dots

Sean’s daughter Ara was born in 2009, while he was doing his PhD work in Germany. Within months, Sean and his wife Elaine realized Ara wasn’t developing at the same rate as her peers. At ten months old, an age when most babies can crawl and pull themselves up on the furniture, Ara couldn’t sit up on her own. She didn’t walk until she was almost two, and wasn’t talking. When she was two and a half, she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Children with autism often struggle with both fine motor function (used for activities like writing) and gross motor function (needed to ride a bike or play hopscotch). They also have difficulties processing sensory information, communicating and interacting socially. Some experience sensory overload when exposed to light, noise, touch, or sound, while others, like Ara, crave certain strong sensory stimulation. One of her favorite activities, for example, is being picked up and swung in a giant circle. “It would be dizzying to most of us, but she adores it to no end and can actually provide a calming effect,” says Sean.

When Sean had his first exhibition – the one where people followed the accepted protocol of ‘look but don’t touch – Ara was five years old. That’s when a light bulb went off in his mind. “I had all this information I’d built up from my research with the textiles, and all the information I’d built up in trying to understand my daughter, her autism and the things that challenge her,” says Sean. “I thought, ‘Ok, if I can tap into the right sensory experience, at the right magnitude, I can create architecture that that interests and engages her.’” This was also at a time where Sean was desperate to connect with Ara, struggling to understand her needs and build her trust.

Sense and sensory ability

Architecture is traditionally a very siloed field, says Sean. “Simply put, the architect’s scope is limited to the organization and material description of space, limiting the ability to examine how people operate within or transform the experience of such spaces.” What Sean wanted to build and study for Ara was outside the boundaries of architecture’s traditional scope, so it only made sense to take a non-traditional approach, one that was cooperative instead of solo. He started to pull together a cross-disciplinary team of researchers and experts to help him achieve his goal.

He started with Ara’s occupational therapist, Cathy Schuh. One of the things they discussed was how, with many autism therapies, a sensory reward is given when the child completes a task. For example, given Ara’s preference for strong tactile sensations and “deep pressure”, Cathy would often reward her for carrying out a motor-skills exercise – say, stacking wooden blocks – by reaching across the table to very firmly squeeze her head. Sean wondered: could his structures somehow link cause and effect so the task and the reward weren’t two separate events (stacking and squeezing) but one connected, multi-sensory experience?

What Sean wanted to build for Ara was outside the boundaries of traditional architecture, so it only made sense to take a non-traditional approach, one that was cooperative instead of solo

With Cathy’s help and input from students in the University of Michigan’s architecture, computer science, music, and engineering departments, Sean developed the first of what he calls Social Sensory Architectures. Stretch|Color, a 2D textile surface, looks like a big flexible iPad. It’s like a coloring sheet, but instead of crayons or paint, a child colors it in using varying levels of force. A light brush might make a yellow mark, a harder stroke, purple. As the child pushes, they register a pleasurable sensation in their fingertips, muscles, and joints, explains Sean. In other words, the sensory reward is happening as they do the task of coloring, in the effort of developing new fine and gross motor skills.

Sile O’Modhrain, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance, helped shape the initial concept for Sean’s other project, a multi-sensory 3D play space called Stretch|Play. The structure was inspired by Ara’s love of the family’s Prius. She loved to climb around in it. Sean suspects the scale of the car – larger than her body, but not too large – gave her a sense of security and control over the environment. After work, Ara and Elaine would often meet him at the door with dinner, and they’d all drive around, eating and listening to music. Ara is non-verbal, but she’d sign to indicate when she wanted her parents to change the song, or point to say she wanted them to drive or notice the horses out the window. “There was a wonderful intentionality in in her actions. All the things that seemed to distract her were filtered out, allowing her to communicate quite clearly,” says Sean. Providing this joy for Ara became, literally, a vehicle for gaining her trust. Sean wanted to create an architecture that could do the same.

Stretch|Play is about the size of a compact car. It’s made from material knitted on the machine, stretched over bendable glass-fiber reinforced polymer rods. The structure is sturdy enough to climb on, with tunnels to crawl through and nooks to explore. In effect, it’s Ara’s Prius playground in soft form. External computer sensors detect changes in the textiles, identifying when and how hard a child is pressing on it, triggering projected images and sounds. A quick touch to one spot causes a fish to appear. Press harder, and an entire school swims in circles around your hand. Glide your palm over another area, and the sound of wind chimes is activated. Sile, who develops braille technology for tablets and other flat screen devices, brought a unique understanding of how to create an interactive experience centered on sensorial experience, says Sean. “Her technical understanding of sensory responses helped me explore sensory issues from a design perspective instead of a therapeutic one.”

Expanding the team

There’s a saying in the autism community that Sean often quotes: “If you know one individual with autism, you know one individual with autism.” The disorder exists on a very large spectrum and each child is unique in abilities and challenges. Sean had designed his work with Ara’s sensory difficulties in mind, but he wanted his next set of collaborators to help him gather data on how other children with autism would respond to his work.

It took him six months and dozens of conversations to find the right people. “Interdisciplinary work is so difficult. Most people I was talking to had already set their research track. If the proposition for my research wasn’t exactly aligned, then it was very difficult to form a collaboration,” he says. In 2015, Sean linked up with kinesiologist Leah Ketcheson and psychiatry researcher Costanza Columbi (both University of Michigan postdoc students at the time), to do a pilot study to understand how kids interacted with his constructions.

“When Sean first approached me about the project I was a bit skeptical, because it was outside the scope of the technology typically used in fundamental motor skills acquisition,” says Leah. But she also thought it had tremendous potential.

If you know one individual with autism, you know one individual with autism

Leah brought a critical understanding of movement and pressure to the project. That’s important, because those fine and gross motor-function limitations that children with autism struggle with? Research shows they get in the way of social interaction. For example, when Ara wants to play with another child, she might try to communicate that through a less-than-delicate tap on the head (which rarely has the desired effect). Another child with autism who doesn’t have the motor control to ride a bike might feel excluded when all the other kids in the neighborhood learn and go out riding together after school. Sean’s team is hoping that if a child with autism is engaged in beneficial sensory activities within the architectural spaces, they might have better success in engaging their neuro-typical and neuro-diverse peers. In fact, some of the triggers in 3D play spaces have to be hit simultaneously to activate an animation. To get them to work, the children need to communicate and work together.

Like Sean, Leah is used to working in silos. “We’re taught that collaboration is a way to expand your learning. That’s good in theory, but in academia it’s hard to step outside your comfort zone.” Openness and transparency ended up being the keys to their success. “Sean was up front with the skill set he had, and I was likewise. We each assumed roles that capitalized on our strengths and let the other shine,” says Leah. Costanza agrees. “I could not do what Sean is doing and he needed my expertise so we really had to come together and put our knowledge to work.” Sean knew how to build the structures and create the computer programs to make them interactive. Costanza and Leah understood the scientific process needed to actually study how effective they are.

We’re taught that collaboration is a way to expand your learning. That’s good in theory, but in academia it’s hard to step outside your comfort zone

That’s not to say it’s all been smooth sailing. The first smack in the face for Sean was realizing that they needed a way to collect information on how children were interacting with the technology he’d developed. “Leah explained to me that we needed to use methods that had already been benchmarked to measure the improvement of motor skills in different age ranges. Then we needed another tool to show fine degrees of improvement or changes over time. As an architect, you imagine you can design new measurement tools specific to each project,” says Sean.

Costanza brings a similar clinical focus to the research. “I had no idea how to do a behavioral study,” says Sean. “Costanza understood how to map out a clinical trial for this population.” Typically with studies, you compare your test subjects with a control group that doesn’t get whatever treatment you’re testing. “Working with this community, it doesn’t seem very ethical to have a control group, and Costanza reinforced this.”

Then, there’s the critical question of the role that the larger environment plays. At one point, a local library system approached Sean to suggest he could study children interacting with the designs at one of their locations. “Costanza rightfully flipped out by my proposal of doing a study in this public setting,” Sean laughs. “She clearly described the hurdles of working in an uncontrolled environment: ‘I can’t record in that setting [Costanza’s measurement tool relies on video recordings]. ‘How do we sign people up? How often will they show up?’ I was like, ‘I was like, ‘Lesson learned. I see the challenge.’”

Squad goals

Sean and his team are still looking for grants to further study children’s responses to the sensory structures and whether they can help with both motor skill development, social interactions, and inclusion in learning environments. In the meantime, Sean has collaborations set up with a local assisted living facility, to see if the structures can help people who don’t have autism, but who struggle with emotional challenges. He also brings his designs to children’s museums, schools and even outdoor areas where children can explore them.

His first exhibit, at the children’s museum in Austin, has given him hope. There, a small boy climbed around the structure for almost an hour. His parents told Sean it was the first time they’d seen him be able to spend such a dedicated amount of time playing in one space where there were so many distractions with noise and other children.

Leah and Costanza are also working on their own projects outside the Social Sensory Architectures, and they both say their ongoing collaboration with Sean has bolstered their interest in working in interdisciplinary teams.  Costanza is already partnering with a professor from the business school on a project about genetics and autism. “My experience with Sean strengthened that idea that there’s really a value in working with people with different expertise,” she says. “There is so much in terms of research that people are developing. You end up knowing a lot of what is done in your own field but maybe there’s a method that’s been developed in another field that can lead to new ideas or new areas of research for you.”

There’s really a value in working with people with different expertise

Elaine and Ara, who is now 9, often join Sean when he sets up his projects remotely. “Ara does something different each time” says Sean. When she was younger, Ara loved the “deep pressure” of squeezing her body through a tube-like part of the playscape. These days, she switches between pressing her face against it to feel the stitches in the fabric, or treating it like a trampoline – or swinging in it like a hammock. Her connection to the structures is shifting, as is her connection to her father. “She has connected the dots that I make these structures for her. It helps in continuing to build a social bond with her.”

Cut from a different cloth...