PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS: Sean Ahlquist
LOCATION: Lincoln Center, New York
My daughter Ara, currently 13 years old, has autism spectrum disorder—a unique neurological make-up that shapes behavior, communication and social interaction. In particular, she is non-verbal. This means expression and communication come in many, often unexpected, forms. Objects, technologies and people are combined to invent her own dynamic language. The term “orchid” is used in behavioral science, likened to its floral namesake, to refer to diversity among individuals stemming from an intricate and highly specific relationship to one’s environment. By contrast, the “dandelion” is ubiquitous—less contingent on their environment in order to thrive.
Deemed an “orchid”, Ara’s character and creativity is inextricably linked to the nuances of her environment. As her father, I’m witness to and also part of her orchid-ness.. The combination of personal experience and academic research in novel material construction, drives the desire to study relationships between environment, behavior and communication; particularly in circumstances that spur excitement and engagement in social activities.
Tinker-ability in play
Ara is the author of her language, and only through experiential learning on her terms can it be collectively expanded and understood. Among the spectrum of individuals with autism, those terms are monumentally diverse. The Orchids Playscape addresses this challenge by considering play as a form of sensorial exploration. Enclosure, tactility, stretch-ability, transparency, sound and pattern are means by which an individual’s most fitted environment can be discovered. The tinker-ability available through combining, muting and magnifying aspects of these sensory interactions creates a sense of agency and autonomy, often lacking in the highly structured world that a child with autism is presented with. Each child can prescribe and narrate their own manner of play, allowing their own creativity to emerge.
The Orchids Playscape was initially installed at Lincoln Center in New York City in September 2021 for the Big Umbrella Outdoor Festival. A further developed version was installed for the Common Senses Festival in Omaha, Nebraska in April 2022.