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The U.S. Patent Office issued Patent No. 6,401,249, June 11, 2002, to Virginia Tech and K-State for "Therapy Apparel for Children Diagnosed with Sensory Integration Dysfunction." Sherry Haar and Joann Boles, retired professor of clothing and textiles at Virginia Tech, were involved in the patent.

The patent has two parts. The costume patent is co-owned by Virginia Tech and K-State, while the helmet patent is owned solely by K-State, Haar said.



Costume helps children with sensory dysfunctions

'Bugman' makes therapy fun, effective for children with sensory integration dysfunction

By Mark Berry



child in bug costume
Photo provided by Sherry Haar.


There's a new superhero on the loose -- Bugman.

The superpowers come from a costume and helmet, which can be donned by any preschool-aged child. They do not allow flight or X-ray vision, but they do something else. They help children with sensory problems.

Sherry Haar, assistant professor in apparel, textiles and design at Kansas State University, designed the beetle-themed costume and a helmet with small attachments. They are designed to make therapy fun and effective for children with sensory integration dysfunction, which is commonly found in children with other disabilities such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The costume and helmet are designed for children ages of 3 to 5.

Children with sensory integration dysfunction can have problems with their sense of touch, balance or muscles and joints. Their senses may be overly sensitive or underdeveloped.

Their sense of touch may be so sensitive that they can't stand to be touched. Tags on the insides of shirts feel like sandpaper. Or their tactile sense may be insensitive, causing children to bang their hands or bite themselves because it is the only way they can feel pressure. Children with balance problems may fear climbing a step, or conversely may twirl around or swing themselves to activate that sense. Those with a muscle and joint sensory dysfunction often feel jointless or weightless, and like to feel pressure on their joints and muscles.

Children with such disorders enter therapy programs to stimulate their senses. But much of the equipment used in the therapy looks more suited to a medical or industrial setting, Haar said.

"Toys are inviting. Some of the therapy apparel out there was not. My goals are to satisfy the needs of the therapy environment and make it a form of play," Haar said.

Embedded in her costume are elastic bands that stretch across the costume from one hand to the other, and more bands that go from the top of the body to the feet. The bands provide resistance against the joints and muscles throughout the body.

The caped costume has pockets for beetle-shaped weights, which help stimulate the muscles. The weight is also comforting, much like a heavy blanket. The weights have different textures that children can use to brush against their skin to stimulate the sense of touch.

The costume itself is made of 18 different fabrics, ranging from smooth to rough to soft. The helmet has light weights and removable attachments, which children attach to the helmet to develop the tactile sense and motor skills.

Traditional therapy relies on a therapist to provide the sensory stimulation for the child, Haar said. The costume allows the children to independently use the elastic straps, weights and textures to provide therapy for themselves. The helmet and costume proved effective in a small study.

Therapists and parents alike reacted positively, Haar said. One child's hyperactivity had prevented him from completing a therapy session. He was able to concentrate for the full 40-minute session when he donned the costume and announced "I am Bugman."

The project got its start when Haar met the mother of an autistic child at a bus stop years ago. Her daughter needed a large piece of vinyl cheese, the mother said, so that girl could be stacked in a giant cloth cheeseburger. The daughter had a sensory dysfunction in addition to her autism. She didn't feel pressure and touch as well as other people, and the cheeseburger stacking game stimulated her poor senses.

For Haar, who had just begun her doctorate work in apparel product development after owning a bridal business, it was perfect.

"I just knew that making wedding gowns and veils was not making the world a better place," Haar said. "I wanted to work with populations whose apparel needs were not being addressed."

Fall 2002