Sensory Tunnel

An Interactive Installation that supports Autistic Children
Project Type
Interaction Design, Tangible Computing
Project role
Research, Prototyping,
Project year


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that causes significant social, communication, and behavioural difficulties. The disorder may also manifest itself in restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. It’s idiosyncratic nature makes it highly distinctive. Growing research emphasises the importance of highly personalised early intervention. A major objective of this research is to emphasise the importance of modular and progressive multidisciplinary inclusive design tools. Interactive design and tangible computing are used in the installation to help caregivers teach self-regulation and other skills to children with autism.


Sensory Tunnel is an installation that supports children with autism. The play-based interaction can be used to provide Sensory Therapy to children on the spectrum. Besides providing early intervention for kids, the installation can also encourage collaborative play. The Sensory Tunnel consists of a tunnel installation that aims to assist in sensory integration. The installation is modular and has several interactive elements. The installation is accompanied by a controller, which allows the inputs of the installation to be adjusted and controlled according to the requirements of the child.


The purpose of the installation is to enable the children to use it to regulate and grant themselves the opportunity to achieve the balance, as well as organising themselves and, if needed, stimulating the environment. By allowing the children to modulate their own environment, this could also be useful in identifying the sensory issues that the child might be experiencing. Installation also aims to enhance the relationship dynamics between the caregiver and the child by providing opportunities for play-based interactions while encouraging co-participation.

Problem Statement

The main emphasis of the project is to explore how children with challenges and deficits associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder can be supported in acquiring social, cognitive and sensory skills through interactive technologies and to research some effective ways to address sensory and social skill issues in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder using interactive play-based approaches.

What exactly is it?

Sensory Tunnel is an interactive installation designed to provide support for children under the Autistic Spectrum, using a play-based approach. Sensory Tunnel installations offer several features that may prove useful in the early diagnosis and treatment of autism. There is an extremely high level of idiosyncrasy manifested by autistic individuals. Additionally, the installation includes an external physical controller that manages the modularity of the sensory tunnel. This controller provides features for customising the tunnel for each child based on their sensory profile. It is possible for caregivers and therapists to customise the sensory input by means of the physical controller, which subsequently alters how the device performs.

Why is it important?

Oftentimes, the appearance of Autism may delay a child's early intervention thereby causing an unfair environment to exist for them. The overwhelming majority of children on the spectrum indicate considerable distress when presented with even minor changes that irritate their existing schedule when even the slightest change occurs. There is a possibility they may give themselves to redundant exercises that are careless and aimless, and the motivation behind them leaves a feeling that they are looking to maintain the sameness in their surroundings. Generalisation can be one of the most challenging obstacles even for children with ASD who are quite capable. Moreover, the inability to bring things together affects every part of day-to-day existence, and the level of trouble could be considered perturbing. Autism is often portrayed as a disorder that is 'pulled back', as if autistic children have chosen to exclude themselves from society. While in reality, the child may not have withdrawn but is simply incapable of understanding and picking up delight from interactions with humans.

Who is it for?

The installation is intended for use by caregivers, therapists, parents, and teachers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder between the ages of 3 and 6 years. The customisation and modularity features of the installation would provide a sensory environment tailored specifically for each child, thereby providing a much more effective sensory environment. Furthermore, therapists or analysts can also use the installation to develop a sensory profile for the child based on their understanding of the child's preferences. The play-based approach could also contribute to the development of a rapport between the caregiver and child.

Where would it be used?

In order to assist individuals who need sensory integration, the installation is intended for use in sensory rooms, homes, or outdoor playgrounds with parents, caregivers, and therapists being able to customise it to accommodate each child's specific sensory, social, communicational, and interactional needs. The installation is suitable for use in therapeutic environments at schools that support children with special learning requirements. The activities achieved through the installation, individuals on the autism spectrum will engage their senses, provide feedback to their sensory systems, and regulate their sensory needs such as stimming (Stimming - short for self-stimulatory behaviour is a repetitive series of actions which an autistic child may do when they are excited, anxious or stimulated).

How was it made?

The process for developing the system followed a user centered design approach. Preliminary steps in the project involved gathering data and user requirements through web-based and field research, interviews with teachers and parents, experts in the field, and various interviews with subject matter experts. With this background research as the guide, explored design possibilities, developing prototypes of different fidelities, and testing them with parents and professionals to determine which approach would be most effective. After receiving feedback from the team and iterating the design, the prototypes were refined, improving their level of fidelity accordingly.

Background Research

In order to gather key findings and insights into the specific research area, background study of previously performed research was compiled, which included exploratory studies, field studies, different technological approaches, and design approaches. The literature review began with browsing a wide range of academic journals in order to gain an understanding of the subject area before narrowing down to a specific approach selected for the final design solution. Further, members of an Autism Centric Special Interest Group that consists of parents, special educators, therapists, and PhD scholars at the University of Limerick were also consulted in order to gain a deeper understanding of the subject.

User  Research

Speaking directly with those you're designing for is the only way to understand their hopes, desires, and aspirations. Majority of the data collection and info validation for this project has been conducted via interviews. In order to facilitate open-ended discussions, the interviews were semi-structured. In total, ten participants were interviewed, and the data was transcribed to draw conclusions, and these participants were contacted again as part of the research for further discussion and testing. Commonly, experts such as speech-language therapists, paediatricians, psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and educational psychologists were involved.

Mood Boards

A mood board was made after the interview and research process to help organise the information and ideas. In a mood board, materials (pictures, illustrations, colours, labels, etc.) are arranged to evoke an impression of space or to evoke a sense of being there. The primary purpose of creating mood boards is to direct myself to a specific path when I become overwhelmed by too much information. By creating the mood board, I was able to create a powerful visual representation of the entire project, which helped me to see the project in its real context, and to get additional design ideas that helped me to brainstorm.

Outcomes from Research

The empirical research has proven to be of great assistance in generating the idea for the study. I was predisposed towards designing digital products and mobile applications that would support individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the early phases of research. There was a desire to develop Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality based applications that could assist in sensory integration as well as teach social aspects through virtual reality. Upon further investigation and empirical research, the notion was proven to be completely invalid. In unanimity, all the participants emphasised the impacts of excessive screen time for children on the spectrum as well as the repercussions and consequences of using virtual reality-based applications and associated devices for these children.

Based on the empirical research, the following conclusions were drawn:

• Toys and installations based on screens are avoided for supporting kids on the spectrum, according to unanimous opinions from the participants.

• Autism is characterised by its idiosyncrasies, therefore the installation must include modularity. 

• Providing children with more opportunities for participation and fostering more collaborative play through play-based learning 

• Offering outdoor installation feasibility and providing a convenient interface for kids seeking proprioceptive and vestibular input.

• Controllable and customisable aspects of the installation may also prove beneficial for early intervention as well as for constructing the sensory profile of the child.

• Multi-sensory inputs are useful for achieving stronger sensory integration in children. 

• Designed to be modular, the installation would be ideal for use in sensory rooms, home environments and outdoor settings.

• The reusable nature of the installation does not render it obsolete after a certain period.


Personas are basically fictional characters made for reliable and realistic representations of key audience segments for reference They are utilised to shape the design and to distinguish opportunities and difficulties in outlining for various user groups. They are generally contrived and refined from data gathered from real users. These representations are based on qualitative and some quantitative user research. This project has made use of online case studies, interviews with parents and observation to come up with personas. The only commonly observed issues were sensory dysfunctions, lack of social interaction and speech-and-language barriers.

Sketching and Ideation

Ideas are best communicated in an expressive medium by designing sketches. In general, sketching aids in putting ideas on paper and thus enables a better understanding of the entire workflow. This method is a time-and-cost-saving method because it takes place before prototyping. Creating a visual representation of the components of the installation will help to gain a better understanding of the entire installation prior to prototyping. Sketching out each of the individual components and materials that made up the installation was helpful in getting a better understanding.

Prototyping and Testing

The concept generation and prototyping were done with varying degrees of fidelity. Physical cardboard box installations were used for the low-fidelity prototype to observe the child's interaction. The low-fi prototyping approach is a simple way to turn ideas into a reality, to learn through making, and to gain key feedback quickly on concepts. 

This medium-fidelity installation prototype involved writing code and working with Arduino components to test out the sensors and materials used in the final installation. This medium fidelity prototype involved the use of velostat sheets covered with yoga mats to test the interaction with the larger tiles. 

Final high-fidelity prototypes of the tunnel system and controllers are made from high-grade medium-density fibreboard (MDF) and are laser-cut to exact dimensions. Different textures are used in the tiles to allow a child to perceive differences.

Modularity plays a significant role in the installation of the Sensory Tunnel. By combining ESP-8266, IFTTT, Ai-Thinker, and speech recognition technologies, it is possible to replace modules with automated functions that incorporate voice recognition technology. By doing so, it would be possible for the Sensory Tunnel Installation in conjunction with Google Home to communicate with voice commands, allowing the installation to be controlled through voice commands, increasing the child's verbal skills. The potential for expansion and improvement is enormous.

Developing the tactile tiles, which are present on the Sensory Tunnel floor, posed the greatest challenge. The components for the tactile tiles had to be tested, calibrated, and tweaked, or else a touch on the tile would activate the entire installation.

Based on the findings of this research, the use of technology has shown promising evidence in supporting and assisting individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in learning new daily living skills and cognitive concepts. It would be useful to illustrate the current state of research being carried out in the field of Human-Computer Interaction and Interaction Design. Furthermore, they provide insight into the design methodologies used in the domain of HCI for health care.