A session at An-Najah Child Institute during which the child would choose the atmosphere — lights in the room as well as music, relaxing video, and a few educational interactive games — using the sensory box Image Credit: Supplied

A Palestinian entrepreneur’s innovation can be likened to a pearl that is borne from struggle — Iris Solutions is a Ramallah based technology start-up and despite the dire situation Palestinians find themselves in, they have created a digitally enhanced space for children with special needs.

Ayman Arandi, who heads Iris, completed his engineering degree at An Najah University in Nablus and then obtained a scholarship in Management of Information Technology and Innovation at the London School of Economics, where he completed his masters. “I’ve always had a fascination with interactive solutions, technology coupled with movement, touch and physical activity,” he enthusiastically explains. “My master’s thesis was based on how technology affects music composition. Prior to this, during my time at An Najah, my colleague and co-founder Ahmad Rabi and I built the first-ever custom-made touch screen in Palestine and, after returning from London, we started developing creative, interactive solutions for touch screens. It all began in 2011 and culminated into Iris — our start-up after a few years when another partner, Mohammad Na’nish, joined us.

“In 2013, we created the first sensory room environment in Jenin, which was a room utilising lights and sounds to decrease stress and enhance the well-being of children diagnosed with autism at a rehabilitation centre. We overcame various technological and content-related challenges and the project was an enormous success. Our clients were pleasantly surprised by the impact it made on the children, their families and the staff of the centre. This was a defining moment; it gave us purpose and was the start of a three-year journey. We kept improving our services and solutions with the help of academic research verified by trials with children. Today we have 45 sensory environments installed in the occupied West bank and Gaza.”

Palestinians like Arandi are using virtual environments to transform their reality in the occupied state.

“We began obtaining enquiries from kindergartens, schools and hospitals but the main obstacle facing the sensory room technology was that it was bulky and expensive,” he explains. “Our research focused on how to make it smaller and affordable. The fruit of this research, the sensory box, was an innovative solution that allows anyone to have a sensory environment at a fraction of the cost.”

Iris launched this new solution last year and since then has managed to install more sensory environments in a year than the previous three years. Today, 35 sensory environments are operating in kindergartens, nurseries, rehabilitation centres, schools and hospitals throughout Palestine.

So what is so special about this innovation?

“The sensory box is the only technology of its kind in Palestine and the region, it is easy to install and affordable,” Arandi proudly says. “The uniqueness of this innovative, state-of-art technology — which was patented in the US patent office — is in its advantage over what is available in the market. You get all the educational content and relaxational features in one package that is customised per-user for all types of development while emphasising user-friendliness and the ‘plug-and-play’ approach. Most importantly, it is not as costly as any available sensory technology in the market.”

The concept of the sensory environment was introduced in the 1970s by therapists and then generalised, due to its evident benefits, into common use all over the world.

“Besides autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, behavioural, emotional and sensory disorders in children and teenagers, it can alleviate more than 50 other conditions,” Arandi points out. “For example, at Aliya Hospital in Bethlehem, it is used for children with severe skin burns by providing a stimulating and relaxing space to aid speedy recovery. We are now working with another hospital to use it with cancer patients and survivors.”

Arandi’s team is driven by passion and is determined to scale the innovation into the region and beyond, bringing much-needed aid to as many children as possible.

The team began with three specialists and expanded to seven and, to date, has installed 45 sensory environments. At present, they are focusing on Jordan and its recent refugee crisis in the north, where they believe they may be able to play a positive role.

With a sense of achievement and not forgetting his team at Iris, Arandi points to the numerous regional and international awards they have been awarded, and the ones that stand out are the Shaikh Salem Al Ali Al Sabah Informatics Award in Kuwait in 2016, the King Abdullah Award for Youth and Innovation in Jordan in 2015 and Prince Abdul-Aziz Bin Abdullah International Award for Entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia in 2014.

Arandi then takes me to a room to demonstrate his flagship sensory box. Sensory environments are now well-known tools in the world of ASD, post-trauma treatments and rehabilitation centres for adolescents with developmental and stress-related conditions. A sensory environment is designed to stimulate the senses with a wide variety of activities by organising different inputs from the environment — sound, touch, taste and sight — enabling the body to react accordingly. Sensory environments are scientifically designed on two pillars; isolating the environment from any external distraction; and creating a vivid sensational experience that is absorbed quickly by the user’s brain.

“The sensory box is a game-changing tool in this field,” Arandi says. “It presents the aptitude for a user to customise the sensory stimuli. The user or the care giver can easily adjust the lights, sounds, visuals in their own space — be it at home, in an office or in a health or educational institution. This tool allows anyone to have a sensory environment in a matter of minutes, and in a plug-and-play fashion. It can be used across schools, kindergartens, various centres or even households.”

As for the design, Arandi adds, “we analyse the institution, its environment and services and the requirements of the people who will be working with our tools. Then we leverage the team’s knowledge, experience, and imagination to offer our client a tailored design. Our team’s area of expertise covers psychology, architecture, product development, content design and technology.”

When asked about the future, Arandi is practically optimistic. “We have an inter-disciplinary, highly-experienced team and base our work on the latest cutting-edge technology. In the subtle, complex world of mental health, we rely on our global network of advisors, psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers, academics, and practitioners. Our sensory box is being tested by specialists from no less than five different areas of medicine, they give detailed feedback and assessment on how the tool can be used and how it can be developed further. The studies show that children using our sensory box on a regular basis have exhibited a positive effect on behaviour, concentration, communication and other skills.”

Rafique Gangat, author of Bending the Rules, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.