University students design backpack to help autistic children

The group plans to raise funds with Kickstarter for their project next month.

Benjamin Farniok

When autistic children encounter stressful situations, pressure and weight applied to their torso can often help keep them grounded.
To get the support they need,  some wear vests that apply pressure to the torso. Now, with  a product designed by six University of Minnesota students, children with autism may have more stylish options. 
The backpacks, called Nesel Packs, feature a compression vest that uses the straps of the pack to apply pressure to the wearer’s torso. The bag will also feature a spot to place weights, which can also help children stay calm. 
The product was created as part of a yearlong entrepreneurship class through the University’s Carlson School of Management.
“They are more likely to use something they desperately need to have them function if it’s not going to set them apart,” said Rachel Gardner, director of autism research at Fraser, an autism service group, 
She said the vests help to keep the children grounded when they begin to feel overwhelmed by the world around them. 
Nesel Packs co-founder and entrepreneurial management senior Larry Lorbiecki said the idea for the bag came when the group realized there isn’t enough support for autistic children. 
Young children commonly use standard compression vests and more visually recognizable supports, but vests become less common as kids age because they make them stand out, Gardner said.
“By the time the kids get 7, 8, 9 [years old] they have the cognitive skills to understand they don’t want to look different,” she said, “So they oftentimes don’t utilize a lot of supports that we have.”
Lorbiecki said the product is designed for children from 6 to 12 years old.
The group is working with Fraser to test the backpack and eventually spread the word about the bags.
The bags are expected to cost about $115, said Jake Portra, chief innovation officer at Nesel and entrepreneurial management senior. He said the bags can be purchased as a donation to Fraser for a child with autism.
To pay for production, the team hopes to raise funds through Kickstarter. The group plans to ask for at least $10,000, which will allow them to initially create about 100 bags. If the group raises more than $10,000, the group will add additional colors and sizes.
The fundraising campaign is set to launch March 19.
In addition to the Kickstarter campaign, the group is also looking to reach out to the campus greek community and wants to host an event at the Mall of America.
Lorbiecki said he hopes the bags hit the market before the start of the next school year. Going forward, he said, they hope to help out other groups as well.
“We are just focused on helping people feel comfortable,” he said.