Six College Students Create Backpack to Help Students on Autism Spectrum

PHOTO: Six students at University of Minnesota created a new backpack for children on the autism spectrum.
Nesel Packs
Six students at University of Minnesota created a new backpack for children on the autism spectrum.

Students who are on the autism spectrum have unique challenges in school, but a new backpack may help them excel in and out of the classroom.

It's called the Nesel Pack and it was created by six University of Minnesota students, who were taking a yearlong class titled "Entrepreneurship in Action," according to Nesel Pack CEO and graduating senior Martha Pietruszewski.

"This guy on my team named Will [Radke] and his family are a foster family, living in Milwaukee. He saw lots of students with autism and other learning disabilities and we sort of came up with this idea," the 22-year-old told ABC News when describing the inspiration behind the backpack. "We thought something as simple as a backpack would be beneficial because they could bring that to school and be comfortable."

The Nesel Pack is different from ordinary backpacks. It features straps that mimic a person hugging a student, along with pouches for electronics and weights. The backpack also has clips for any sensory tools a student on the spectrum might need along with a slot for a name card so the student can be easily identified if needed.

"We designed it with students on the spectrum in mind," Pietruszewski explained, adding that her team interviewed more than 100 parents. "We really wanted to cater to the [students] on the sensory-processing side of the spectrum."

According to autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks, children with autism often have a hard time "processing sensory information." For example, for a student on the spectrum the fluorescent lights in a classroom may appear so bright it's excruciating. Along with hugging, weighted items such as vests and blankets often soothe a student, according to Autism Speaks, which has a list of similar products on its website.

PHOTO: Six University of Minnesota students created a backpack for children on the autism spectrum.Nesel Packs
Six University of Minnesota students created a backpack for children on the autism spectrum.

Pietruszewski said the backpacks were tested by 10 students who wore them for a day and additional testing is forthcoming.

Occupational therapist and board certified behavior analyst Lydia Brodegard, who works with students on the spectrum in West Virginia public schools, said the Nesel Pack "could be beneficial" for students on the spectrum.

Especially since the students that she works with often don't take off their backpacks during the school day "because of their poor organizational skills." She added, "They won't use a locker so they carry a backpack more often. But every child is different."

Brodegard pointed to the backpack's weight feature and the hugging straps that could provide the most benefit for students with autism.

"Deep pressure can actually target a multitude of areas," she told ABC News. "It can also help improve poor attention [and] self-stimulatory behaviors."

"It increases their arousal level, and helps sustain their attention in the classroom," she added.

Brodegard does have one warning for parents considering purchasing the Nesel Pack: "Make sure you consult an occupational therapist or someone who is good with sensory issues. When you do any kind of weighted devices you need to be careful.

"The ratio of added weights should not be more than 5 percent of the student's body weight," she said.

The six students -- Pietruszewski, Radke, Larry Lorbiecki, Cole McCloskey, Jake Portra, and Rose Altianas -- partnered with Fraser, an experienced autism services provider in their state, to bring the Nesel Pack to the market. The backpack is available in one color, blue, and costs $115.