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Business West Covers Alum’s Pressure Vest for Children with Autism

A feature story in the August 30 edition of Business West looked at the Vayu Vest, named after a Hindu wind god and invented by UMass Amherst alumnus Brian Mullen (right) while he was a graduate student in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department. The inflatable vest is used to help calm children who have autism by giving them a “portable hug.” The story described how Mullen has been collaborating with Tina Champagne, director of the Center for Human Development’s Institute for Dynamic Living in Springfield. Link to article: Business West. Part of the article is reprinted below.

The power of a hug can work wonders in relieving anxiety and stress. But many children with autism spectrum disorder are overly sensitive to touch and cannot tolerate the comforting gesture.

However, they do need something to quell their anxiety, which can result from their heightened response to sounds and sights most people don’t even notice.

And thanks to a groundbreaking new medical device, children with sensory processing disorder are being soothed and comforted by a lightweight, therapeutic vest that can be inflated to produce the exact amount of pressure the child needs at a given moment.

It’s called the Vayu Vest, and it has taken mechanical engineer Brian Mullen years of collaboration, research, and trial and error to create. “About 87% of people with autism have sensory processing issues,” said Mullen. “They experience the world and respond to it differently than typical people.”

Tina Champagne agrees. “Children with autism are often oversensitive to touch, sounds, visual stimulation, and even temperature,” said the program director for the Center for Human Development’s Institute for Dynamic Living in Springfield.

The launch of the vest, which is named after a Hindu wind god, took place in May and was initially inspired by Champagne’s work as an occupational therapist at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

Champagne and Mullen have collaborated on the project for seven years, doing research and clinical trials to develop a product that not only helps children with autism, but may have other applications in mental health treatment.

Two years ago, Mullen and his business partner, Chris Leidel, started a business named Therapeutic Solutions to market the vest. The duo and their Amherst-based operation were recently named as finalists in the prestigious Mass Challenge competition in Boston that runs through the end of September. They are hoping to win a portion of the $1 million in cash awards, as well as generate interest in their product.

They have received help and won awards along the way for their work, which they are grateful for, and Mullen says their business is growing, thanks to support from the Western Mass. community. Their hope is to get the cost of the $2,000 device reimbursed by insurance companies. If they succeed, it will be the first medical device for autistic children paid for by insurance.

“This was and is all-consuming,” said Mullen. “It’s an incredibly important thing to do, and we are getting calls and e-mails from people thanking us.” (September 2011)