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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 4

Patent Watch

Proprioceptive feedback system



Courtesy of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

When Hilary Mass was eight years old, her family added a new member who would change her life forever. Her little brother was born with special needs, and as the oldest child Mass found herself in a new position. “I was always the helper,” she says, “so I always knew this was what I was going to do.”

For the past 30 years she has worked with special-needs kids. As Mass spent time with her charges, she noticed something that she thought could be better: many children with special needs have what specialists call sensory diets—activity plans that ensure their unique sensory needs are met. Some autistic children, for example, like to be hugged or have their shoulders pressed on—they find such touching calming, and it allows them better control over their anxiety and hyperactivity.

To achieve that sensation, many of them wear a weighted vest with sandbags to provide pressure on their shoulders and elsewhere. But Mass noticed that the children did not like wearing this bulky vest even if they liked the result. “My students don’t choose to put it on,” she says. “You have to talk them into it or force them to wear it.”

Seven years ago Mass began developing her own system. What she came up with—patent No. 8,095,994, which she is calling Big Hug—is a suit that children could wear just like an article of clothing. Mass’s design does not rely on sandbags or weights like the stan­dard vests but instead inflates with air to create even and customizable pressure on the body.

She has tested it only on her own students and children she knows, but so far it has been a success. “The students really seem to like it,” she says. “They ask for it.” Mass is now trying to put Big Hug on the market. “My motivation was to help families to make things a little easier when they’re trying to get through the day,” she says.

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