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Steampunk as Art Therapy for the Autistic

The participants in “Steampunkinetics: Building Art into Science” unveil their creation last month in Lowell./Boston Globe photo by Mark Wilson
The participants in “Steampunkinetics: Building Art into Science” unveil their creation last month in Lowell.

Boston Globe
By Taryn Plumb

A pinball starts out at the top of a giant contraption, working along a copper track that curves and loops through a maze of five boxes.

The curious course takes the ball past antique clock parts and hinges; patinaed hooks, brackets, and door knobs; old light fixtures, outlet face plates, and porcelain toilet flush handles; and even a discarded sunburst-shaped airplane part affixed with a pair of vacant blue eyes.

A whimsical device worthy of Rube Goldberg, it is the culmination of nine weeks of invention, reinvention, tinkering, and trial and error. Fifteen young adults on the autism spectrum came together to create it through a first-of-its-kind art therapy program, “Steampunkinetics: Building Art into Science,” assisted by an eminent steampunk artist and designer from Sharon, Bruce Rosenbaum, at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“It was a rather unusual experience, challenging at times, most definitely fun,” said Will Geary, 19, of Salem. “I definitely liked the overall process of going from sketch to reality.”

An exhibition and reception for the “Steampunkinetics” project will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Northeast Arc’s Gallery at Southside, on 6 Southside Road in Danvers.

Steampunk is a burgeoning aesthetic — and, some say, subculture — that melds antique mechanical and industrial objects and elements from science fiction with modern-day items (consider it Jules Verne, 3.0). 

“Steampunkinetics’’ came about through a collaboration between Rosenbaum, a self-described steampunk evangelist, and UMass Lowell assistant professor of psychology Ashleigh Hillier, who has been involved with various initiatives for young adults on the autism spectrum.

The two found that the eccentricity and intricacy of steampunk is an intense draw for people with disorders on the autism spectrum, who often excel at tasks centered around technology, mechanics, kinetics, and the understanding of how things work. 

Hillier said they also are highly creative, often with phenomenal attention to detail, and have a piecemeal cognitive processing style that supports divergent thinking — the very essence of the steampunk design process.

Rosenbaum, who is working on various projects around the world and gives tours of his “steampunked” house in ­Sharon, said that an additional appeal of the aesthetic is that it is decidedly outside the mainstream, which can very often fit with the perception that many intellectually disabled individuals have of themselves.

During the program, which concluded late last month, the 15 participants were broken into small groups. The goal was to create a house tower made of separate boxes decorated as different rooms but connected into a single cohesive, working structure. The participants visited a salvage yard to pick out various decorative and working elements, and finally collaborated to both bedeck their boxes and incorporate the track that would allow pinballs to travel down through the tower.

“It was a lot of fun, but very hard at times,” said Mackenzie Trippier, 20, of Pelham, N.H. “I think I made a few friends.”

Ultimately, Hillier said, the goal was to help the participants increase self-esteem, improve attitudes toward peers, reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, and foster collaboration, communication, and the sharing of ideas — things that don’t always come easy to those on the autism spectrum.

“All of us often find it difficult to work in groups; it’s a skill that we all need to develop,” she said. “This population in particular has a lot of challenges in negotiating with other people, in figuring out what their role in the group is, in compromising.”

The program was funded by $2,200 from the UMass Lowell psychology department, and another $4,000 from the university’s Joseph P. Healey Endowment Grant program. Hillier plans to publish her findings, and hopes to run “Steampunkinetics’’ again next year, and possibly replicate it elsewhere.

Over the art and technology project’s nine weeks, its organizers, volunteers, and participants saw and experienced some marked changes.

“When they first started, a lot of [the participants] were really, really nervous, but as the weeks went on, they seemed to be making more decisions together, rather than doing their own separate thing,” said Hannah Johnson, a student in the community social psychology master’s program at UMass Lowell. “I really enjoyed seeing the transformation from beginning to end.”

Rosenbaum, for his part, is even more enthusiastic about the potential of steampunk. “I think it can help change and improve lives,” he said.

Participants, meanwhile, noted the various challenges and frustrations they faced and, ultimately, overcame.

Elric Murphy said he had to come to terms with the ever-shifting nature of the project, and the fact that what his team sketched out at the beginning wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in the finished product.