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OTO Chair, Designed for Autistic People, Usable by Everyone

OTO Chair, Designed for Autistic People, Usable by Everyone
OTO, the hugging chair. Courtesy of Alexia Audrain.

Cabinetmaker and furniture designer Alexia Audrain designed an award-winning OTO chair specifically for people with autism but that can be used by all. The new model will be on the market by the end of the year.

Last year, Nantes-based cabinetmaker and furniture designer Alexia Audrain won the national winner and made the Top 20 international finalist list of the James Dyson award 2021 for her OTO chair design. 

To design the chair, she consulted specialist educators and psychometricians and a specialist school for autistic people in Blain (western France) to learn about the sensory needs of autistic people, and the use of deep pressure therapy to manage anxiety, in addition to learning directly from people with autism. Since 2021, the chair has been in use in EXAC-T the Center of Excellence on Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Tours, France.

The original, and currently only, model of OTO that’s in use in the Tours’ hospital and presented in many events, is soon to receive an update. The designer received much feedback that will aid her in making improvements (noise, user remote, fabric). According to her website, she partnered with an industrial producer and is preparing to produce a new design of OTO the hugging chair. The new model will be sold by the end of 2022 and will be made to order.

OTO chair. Courtesy of Alexia Audrain.

OTO, the hugging chair, has inner walls that can apply deep pressure on the chest or on the legs. This allows you to feel the limits of your body and focus on sensory information and reduce tension to help people with autism feel better in their environment. This wood chair has inner walls that inflate and create deep pressure on the user’s legs and chest. The aim of the chair is to be used autonomously in order to make users respond to their own sensory needs.

“Many autistic people have sensory disorders,” Alexia Audrain explained in her entry application for the James Dyson Award. “Noise, light or physical contact can be a real challenge in everyday life, a source of discomfort or a sensory overload has a significant impact on the behavior of people with autism.” 

“To compensate for this sensory disorder autistic people regularly feel the need to be held very tightly or to be hugged. It has been proved that deep pressure helps them to become more aware of their environment to feel their body limits and be more peaceful.”

OTO is easy to use. The remote has + and – pictograms buttons that inflate or deflate cells. An electronic card controls the aeraulic circuit and the pump. A tablet can be connected to the chair for the companion and allow to set a level of pressure according to the needs of each person and to follow the use of the chair live. Thanks to its cocoon shape, OTO offers privacy and gives a reassuring effect and a feeling of safety for the user. The upholstery of the chair provides a muffled acoustic that helps users to focus on their own body and isolate themselves from the outside world.

OTO chair. Courtesy of Alexia Audrain.

The shell is in beech wood and different materials – wool felt, and soft resin – have been integrated in a graphical pattern, which is designed to help autistic people explore the seat through touch. The colors are meant to create a soothing effect. The cushion can be unzipped, and the velvet fabric is washable.

The chair is inspired by the work of Dr. Temple Grandin, a famous autistic American, and a professor at Colorado State University known for designing systems to handle livestock. OTO stems from the idea behind a squeeze machine developed by the doctor—applying pressure showed to have a soothing effect on livestock.

Alexia Audrain worked with teams from the educational center in Blain to develop a piece of furniture with a similar function to that of the squeeze machine. The project lasted a year before she created the first prototype.

Since January 2021, OTO the hugging chair has been evaluated by Professor Bonnet-Brilhault at the Université de Tours, a national center of excellence for autism in France. 

She collected feedback from people with autism in order to better understand their needs, and to test the impact of the chair, so she could make modifications to the design and improve the user’s experience. An example of one alteration is having adjusted the levels of noise and light emitted.

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