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Driving Autism Awareness

April 30, 2014 — Despite the growing availability of a variety of mobile community health services, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s clinic-on-wheels, Mobile REACH, is not just the first of its kind in Philadelphia, but it’s one of only three mobile clinics for autism assessment in the country. Designed in collaboration with Westphal College students under the direction of Architecture & Interiors Professor Diana Nicholas, the vehicle is ready to travel to underserved communities throughout the region to raise awareness about autism-related issues and to conduct research.

The design process for the Mobile REACH (Resources and Education for Autism and Community Health) van engaged interdisciplinary teams of students from Architecture, Graphic Design, and graduate and undergraduate Interiors. The teams consulted advisers from the autism field as well as designers and researchers. The vehicle includes dimmable LED lights in place of fluorescents, neutral tones and textures, insulating materials to reduce outside sounds, and audio/visual technology that allows clinicians to capture important data from assessments to use in follow-up evaluations.

In April, Professor Nicholas and the Autism Institute’s Dr. Craig Newschaffer and Dr. Jennifer Plumb were honored as autism advocates at City Hall by Councilman Dennis O’Brien, in conjunction with Autism Awareness Month. During the event, the van was parked outside of City Hall and was made available to the general public for autism services. Click here to watch a video about Mobile REACH.

“Projects like this which lead to immersive design experiences for our students are a valuable part of producing citizen design leaders. We hope to keep building on our relationship with the Autism Institute and we are very excited that the van is now in use,” said Professor Nicholas.

In the summer of 2012, the Institute began its design collaboration with four Westphal student teams in Professor Nicholas’ studio course. At the end of the first design phase, one team’s scheme was selected. A smaller group then worked with the Institute for several months to compile findings for fabrication of the unit and to create its final design, which took a year to customize. The team included Professor Nicholas, undergraduate Interior Design student Jessica Neilson, and researchers and faculty from the Autism Institute including Dr. James Connell and Dr. Jennifer Plumb. The team is now working on a study of the mobile assessment process to understand the design’s impact on the van’s effectiveness. Professor Nicholas will present this research at the Environmental Design Research Association Conference in New Orleans this month.

By connecting with people of  all ages at many locations, the Mobile REACH clinic will help spread the word about support available for those with autism and their families at Drexel’s Autism Institute. The vehicle will also serve as a research hub for the Institute, which brings a public health approach to the challenges presented by autism disorders. Mobile REACH was created with generous support from the Nancy Lurie Marks Foundation, the Lurie Family Foundation and the Philadelphia Eagles. 

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