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Those weird, inflatable mascots that seem to have an insatiable appetite for cheerleaders? Well, their creator is using them to not only entertain us sports-goers but also to assist kids with autism, using the suits to help them work on their social interactions. In a story in this month’s Wired, Ben Paynter details how Lee Bowen, who debuted his line of mascots in the early ’90s, improbably discovered that the suits held promise beyond just entertaining those of us in the stands:
In 2005, Lee Bowen went to a firefighter convention in Indianapolis to hawk blow-up suits and fire safety programs-a side business that had evolved out of the mascot thing. Bowen needed someone to demo a suit, so he asked a custodian named Sherri Hughes if she had a kid who might want to make a few bucks. Hughes agreed, but her youngest son bailed. Instead, Hughes showed up with her son Joe, an 18-year-old who was, as Hughes put it, nonsocial. “He won’t look at anybody or approach anybody,” she says. “All he does is look at the floor and mumble.” But Bowen needed that demo. They decided Joe would give it a try. “You wouldn’t believe it. This kid was fine,” Hughes says. “He started running up to people and tapping them on the shoulder. I started crying. It is the only time I’ve seen my son having a good time and reaching out to people. He told me, ‘Mom, when I’m in the suit, I don’t need to be afraid no more. I can be with people.'”
The Bowens were stunned. After Joe Hughes repeated his performance at the same conference for two more years, they called in Keith Allen, a psychologist at the Munroe-Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Allen asked if Hughes was autistic, and it turned out that he’d just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. So the Bowens shipped a suit to Scott’s sister Beth, who works with special education students in Pinetop, Arizona. She saw the same thing-an autistic high school student seemed to come alive in the suit. “At first, I was wary,” Allen says. “It seemed like they had the idea these suits might somehow be therapeutic. I don’t know what they really meant by that. Like, are you going to put someone inside one of these things and they’ll come out less autistic?”
Allen suggested a more testable hypothesis: The costume might simply help autistic people become pretty good mascots. The payoff would be small but important. “People who are employed have a greater sense of independence and well-being,” Allen says. But up to 90 percent of adults with autism don’t have jobs.
Do check out the rest of Paynter’s story, which delves extensively into how the suits were developed and what improvements Bowen may make in the future. Good news is, no matter what, these mascots should maintain their cheerleader-devouring regimen.