When Sean Ahlquist’s daughter, Ara, was younger, he would hold her hands and vigorously swing her around in circles.

The little one loved the game. Her intense happiness and the communication of that enjoyment were key to building a social bond, a challenge for Ara as she lives with autism and struggles with being nonverbal.

Ahlquist, assistant professor of architecture at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, says his daughter is a “sensory seeker” — someone who uses strong sensory experiences to help regulate emotions.

Strong sensory stimulation, such as wheeling Ara around inside a small suitcase, can positively impact social interaction. Yet, lacking resilience to common sensory input means negative stimuli can leave a deep impression as well.

“Based on my experiences with Ara in large public spaces, such as a children’s museum — if something triggers anxiety, like an unpredictable behavior from another child, then we’re quickly leaving,” he said.

“At that moment, it’s a struggle for her to reset her emotions and re-engage the activity. This may form a lasting negative imprint, as a place that must now be avoided.”

Photo of Sean Ahlquist using one of his tensile structures
Sean Ahlquist, assistant professor of architecture, touches one of his textiles structures, with its layers of fabric and interconnected tubes that form playscapes into which kids can climb and interact. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Ahlquist has dedicated his scholarship and teaching at the University of Michigan to creating sensory-rich environments that help children with autism overcome these challenges for interacting within “sensory-toxic” socially active environments.

With the help of industrial knitting machines, Ahlquist produces tensile structures made primarily of textiles. Many layers of fabric and interconnected tubes form playscapes into which kids can climb and interact.

Some of the overall shapes resemble storm clouds frozen in motion, into which cyclones punctuate wide expanses of white, elastic textiles.

Ahlquist’s textiles capture a range of tactile qualities, addressing diverse preferences for pushing, pulling and moving with the fabrics. Microsoft Kinect projected graphics become responsive to children’s varied interactions with the playscapes.

For example, kids can graphically paint with different colors or play with schools of fish depending on how hard or soft they push on the knitted surfaces.

These features encourage the needed development of motor skills and tap into the desired sensory experiences that create an engaged but regulated emotional state.

This all caters towards social interactions that are cloaked within a magnified tactile and visual sensation.

Ahlquist took his creations from the classroom to the community, testing at places like the Hands-On Museum and Haisley Elementary School in Ann Arbor. He also collaborated with HKS Architects to design and study the impact of a sensory space for children of the special-needs classrooms at Chicago’s Lane Tech High School.

More recently, Ahlquist has been selected to create an inclusive, urban-scale installation for Exhibit Columbus, an annual exploration of architecture, art, design and community in Columbus, Indiana.

He’s also creating a participatory theater experience, in collaboration with theater faculty from Michigan State University, where children with autism interact with actors and sensory-dynamic environments to help propel the play’s narrative.

The potential of Ahlquist’s work can be seen in the small moments of joy his own daughter experiences in his architectural playscapes.

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, email the Record staff at urecord@umich.edu.

Early on, Ahlquist shared one of the projects with Ara. To everyone’s surprise, she found taking a nosedive through one of the narrow textile chutes as her most favored experience.

A video shows Ahlquist easing Ara headfirst down the tube, triggering a sensory experience of so much excitement that she wanted to take the plunge again.

“Upon reflection, it makes sense,” he said. “The strong tactile input, from the taut surfaces wrapped around her, helped her process and imprint that dive through space.

“Most importantly, to do it again, she needs to communicate with me to help her. We’ve thus synchronized the positive stimuli with a successful social interaction and trustful bond.”


What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

A student’s comment to having Ara test their semester-long project for a very brief 20 seconds — “Those few moments made the entire semester worthwhile!”

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

While it took almost six years to see a football game, I can now say that my favorite spot on campus is at the Big House on a Saturday afternoon.

What inspires you?

Connecting with communities from educators and researchers to theater actors and parents is inspiring and has been critical to evolving the work.

What are you currently reading?

Lots of “Pete the Cat” books with my daughter each night.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Every day my wife and daughter continue to shape the direction of my work and career, seeing the successes and addressing the current struggles and future challenges that Ara and many others like her face.