For Raffi Rembrand, necessity was definitely the mother of his invention. An Israeli engineer and father to a son with autism, Rembrand was well aware of the difficulties of raising a child with severe autism.
He had devoured all the information about the well established treatment of deep pressure touch to produce a calming effect in agitated individuals with autism. However, he discovered that most existing devices were more like straightjackets and weren’t sensitive to changes in the patient’s movement and couldn’t regulate the pressure based on the patient’s needs or body gauges.
An inventor by nature, Rembrand began tinkering in his home until he came up with the idea of a light, wearable, vest-like calming device that’s both portable and non-restraining.
Working through a few prototypes of that ‘home remedy’ makeshift device has resulted in the BioHug – a vest for both people with autism and and children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The BioHug delivers a mildly pulsating pressure through the use of inflatable cells placed throughout the garment and includes a biofeedback mechanism which automatically regulates the level of stimulation.
According to Center for Disease Control, one out of every 150 children in the US suffers from a disorder which falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, ranging from Asperger’s Syndrome on one end to severe autism on the other. ADHD is much more prevalent, however, with millions of children diagnosed with the learning disorder.
“It was very much an improvisational exercise,” says Rembrand, describing how he developed the BioHug. “The idea of inflatable bubble cells is used for people with pressure wounds to keep them from getting infected. I took a little from here and a little from there. There wasn’t any patent, it was just a nice development,”
“I approached ALUT (the Israeli Society for Autistic Children) and said, ‘here’s a simple idea which might help the kids – I’ve tested it on my son, and on other people with autism.’
They were so impressed that they implored Rembrand to take it out of the ‘amateur’ sphere and develop a scientifically tested, professional device that could be made available to all people with autism. For expert advice, he approached Dr. Einat Gal a clinical researcher at the University of Haifa, who continues to collaborate on the development of the BioHug
Still Rembrand wasn’t satisfied. “Everyone told me ‘you know this invention is way too simple’. It has a very low technological barrier, so I said OK if this is what needs to be done, I’ll add some technology to it – which is how we came to include biofeedback.”
According to Rembrand, the device measures the user’s stress, and that stress actually controls the BioHug’s pressure and pulsation rate. A change in the stress counter will cause adjustment to the pulsation rate and amount of pressure.
Earlier this year, Rembrand founded BioHug Technologies Ltd. to commercialize the device and was accepted into the Chief Scientist of Israel incubator program – via L.N. Innovative Technologies in Haifa.
He also found a kindred soul in Andrew Schiffmiller, a veteran manager and consultant, who took up the position of CEO.
“The BioHug is unique among all other types of pressure-based devices for people with autism because we solve the problem of habituation,” Schiffmiller told ISRAEL21c.
“Try it yourself – gently pinch your wrist – you feel it, but if you keep doing it, after a short while you don’t feel it anymore. Your body gets used to it. Through the pulsation feature on the BioHug, we reduce the habituation so the sensation of pressure on the user will continue, because it’s always changing.”
According to Schiffmiller, the original reason Rembrand – who acts as BioHug’s chief technological officer – invented the BioHug concept wasn’t just to keep his son calm, but to conduct tests on a theory he had researched regarding hearing.
“There’s a body of suggestive evidence that people with autism hear differently than other people. When you put a shell to your ear and you think you hear the ocean – it’s called otoacoustic emissions – produced by the inner ear itself which is thought to have some role in filtering out background noise,” Schiffmiller explained.
“The working theory was that there’s a difference in the otoacoustic emissions of people with autism – if that’s true and you can quantify it, then you can have a purely empirical way of diagnosing autism – even in infants.”
But the problem is, how do you get naturally fidgety people with autism to sit till long enough to conduct an ear exam? And according to Rembrand and Schiffmiller, the BioHug is the solution.
They’re still revising the design of the BioHug before they actually begin clinical testing, discussing issues of whether the compressor will be in the vest or an accompanying backpack and other design issues. But according the feedback they’ve received from students with autism who’ve tried the device and from professionals in the field, they’re on the right track.
“Every time we build a prototype, we go back to the Horsha school for children with autism that Rafi has a good relationship with, we give it to the staff, they play with, try it on and give us their suggestions,” said Schiffmiller. “Since these are people that work with children with autism every day and they themselves are experienced in the application of the pressure, they’ve been great sounding boards for us.”
“And they’re still using my first prototype at the school,” added Rembrand.
Both Schiffmiller and Rembrand are confident that the BioHug represents a huge leap in the field of controlled pressure devices for patients with autism. Some devices are based on the principle of weight, where weighted garments place pressure on the user’s shoulders. But Schiffmiller claims there are two drawbacks to that type of therapy.
“One is the issue of habituation – after a few minutes, you don’t really feel it. And two, in order to be effective, the total weight needs to about 10 percent of the wearer’s body weight – that’s heavy, especially if you’re talking about adults.”
And then there’s a device invented a decade ago by Temple Grandon – a very high functioning person with autism in the US – who created a machine that’s based on restraining chute for cattle.
“As a child, she always craved pressure. Once when she was visiting her uncle’s farm, she saw him using a restraining chute for the cattle, and she climbed in and found that the pressure helped calm her,” explained Schiffmiller.
“Her device is large and cumbersome – about 350 pounds and uses an industrial air compressor. What Rafi has done – in essence – is to miniaturize that process into the BioHug.”
Depending on the population, the BioHug can function in a number of different ways, says Schiffmiller. For ADHD students, it could be worn at homework time enabling the user to concentrate and stay on task. And with people with autism who sometimes suffer through periods of severe agitation, it’s a tool to help them calm down.
“With some some people with autism, the possibility exists that they may hurt themselves, or hurt others, and the BioHug is an effective way to get them to relax,” he said.
Rembrand is confident that the BioHug will prove to be a useful device for the families of children with autism. And he only has to look as far as his own son, Jacob, now 23 years old.
“He’s my primary beta tester. And if he says it’s good, then we know it’s good.”