Designer Rob Burn has created a special learning environment for autistic children which will incorporate Soundbeam.

When I first came across Soundbeam I was astonished by it, as are most people who have a healthy appetite for innovation and originality. Within minutes I was performing like a professional: I am a dancer, a musician, an inventor, a conductor! For a moment I thought I could fly! I was sailing single handed through the Outer Isles, then floating weightless somewhere between Andromeda and Alpha Centuri. After a short stay in the bell tower at Glastonbury I was back-packing through a Brazilian rain forest before hurrying over to The Old Duke in Bristol to join a late set with Louis Armstrong. The experience was, and still is, bewitching. So what it is that makes this remarkable kit so remarkable?

…I am a dancer, a musician, a conductor…. For a moment I thought I could fly!...

I think it is because the technology is engineered in such a way so as to be fairly unobtrusive, and it enables the user to take control of a plethora of musical sounds which, up until that point, have been beyond their reach or ability. So when, in the mid ‘90s, I began a research project based at Leiden University in Holland, which explored ways in which designed environments may play a role in provoking imagination and developing social skills in young children with autism, Soundbeam was always something which I hoped I could build into the system.

The research project is called Leca; Learning Environments for Children with Autism, (it also means 'good', 'great', in Dutch although the spelling is different). If the application of 'Design' thinking is important in mainstream education then it is certainly important in areas which require specialist input; autism is a prime example.

Leca is an integrated workspace which combines both personal and sharing space for the children and a separate, enclosed area for the adults who work with the children. It also provides storage for the 2D and 3D activities used during the session whilst keeping the clutter well out of sight.

All activities take place in the centre of the sharing table, so forming a focus on the primary aim of each task and removing unnecessary ambiguity. When compete, a child can remove the activity, return it to the storage area and replace it with another. Even the food and drink at break-time makes use of this interchangeable system. The design of 'Leca' enables children to understand that ‘if something is important, it is in the central sharing area’ and 'the central area is where 'new' things happen'.

Activity folders are used to introduce and conclude each task and to confirm that the objectives of the activity have been understood and achieved.

And so back to Soundbeam. Following the first series of sessions using Leca last year, the Soundbeam Project in Bristol have contributed by developing Soundbeam to fit into the central Leca unit, with the beams pointing upwards through a domed, central point within the sharing table. When the beam is broken, the various programmed sounds are activated. Result! The system can now be used to generate a range of sounds from dogs barking to aeroplanes flying, from trombones playing to cars starting. And of course, the full range of the existing Soundbeam repertoire, all now within arms reach of each child.

…At all levels, Soundbeam will be used to engage the child and to encourage participation and interaction…

The selected sound is controlled from within the teacher unit. At present the intention is to link Soundbeam to Leca as part of a ‘sound, word, pictograph’ activity. A second stage will be storytelling or ‘sets’. Thirdly, the children will be asked to describe the many sounds which they generate, again in speech, words and pictures. At all levels, Soundbeam will be used to engage the child and to encourage participation and interaction.

Leca and Soundbeam (or ‘LecaBeam’) are now in place within a dedicated room at Leiden University and the first session will take place in February 2003 when it’s merits can be evaluated by teachers, psychologists and designers, and of course, by the children themselves. If successful, then it will become a standard feature within the 'Leca' programme and will, hopefully, be available for use in Special Needs teaching and learning within the UK within the coming months and years. For myself and all those people at 'Soundbeam' who have supported this project so enthusiastically, we can’t wait until February when we can watch as the first child discovers that they can make and share a world of sounds...as if by magic.