How a team of MUN students hopes to help a boy with cerebral palsy hold his head high

Mat Squires has a devilish sense of humour, loves ice cream sandwiches and lives with cerebral palsy.

Because of his condition, the 9-year-old needs a wheelchair to get around and doesn't have control of his neck.

"Without proper positioning, Matthew can't interact by looking at people face-to-face, in their eyes," said Sarah Hendrickson, his mom.

"It's really important for a lot of things. One, for basic communication with people, but also for his safety and his comfort."

Mat Squires often looks up because his wheelchair is tilted backwards to keep his head from falling forward. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Squires relies on a headrest to keep his head from tipping side-to-side and his wheelchair has to be reclined back so his head won't fall forward.

Now a team from Memorial University of Newfoundland is working to remedy that.

Deep, painful sores

Sometimes Mat's headrest can cause severe chafing — what his mom calls "hot spots." Before Christmas, a wound became so deep, her son was referred to see a plastic surgeon. Then, just a few weeks ago, the same hot spot appeared again.

"Matthew is a pretty tough little boy and he's been through a lot, but it's very raw," Hendrickson said. "Sometimes, if you touch the area, he'll wince, he'll get a little upset, so you know that it's painful for him."

An abrasion below Mat's left ear, or hot spot, developed a few weeks ago and is now almost healed. (Katie Breen/CBC)

A team of undergraduate students at MUN have set out to make a new type of headrest that they hope will put an end to those hot spots and allow Mat to sit up 90 degrees, which will help him use his Tobii Dynavox — a computer-type communication system that's operated by eye movement.

The design

The headrest design idea came after Emma Dornan, who works with Mat, took him out of his chair to watch a movie. She spread her hands around his head and realized she could stabilize his movements while he was looking straight ahead.

"We're in prototyping stages right now, but we're looking to use 3D printed pads that mimic fingertips across his head," said engineering student and team member Katie Gillespie.

The current 3D printed pad in white and black, compared to the earlier version in red. (Katie Breen/CBC)

The pads started out taller and smaller in circumference but the team has now flattened them so they look a bit like Oreo cookies.

They're printed from a material that isn't as hard as typical 3D-printed plastic. They'll sit at multiple contact points between layers of memory-foam and under a 3D-printed outer shell which, in theory, will connect to the back of Mat's wheelchair.

The team wanted to keep it all thin enough to fit under a baseball cap.

An early prototype with taller pads shows the team's multiple contact point design. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"We wanted to have it sleek so that it would be something normal. We didn't want to design something that would be crazy and cover his whole head and be a warm and restrictive thing," Gillespie said.

"We wanted to have something that was as minimalist as possible just to keep it like a normal, everyday thing he could wear."

They're calling it the MatHat.

MatHat wins big

The design won the team this year's Innovative Design for Accessibility (IDeA) student competition — a national competition open to both undergraduate and graduate students.

For winning, they'll speak at the annual Canadian Innovation Exchange conference in Toronto this October — by then, they're hoping to have a working prototype.

Katie Gillespie helped design the MatHat (Katie Breen/CBC)

"I think the whole reason why we won really came down to Mat. He was a superstar throughout the whole process," Gillespie said.

"But this solution, if we can get it to market, won't only just affect him, but over 20,000 other Canadians who live with conditions, just like Mat."

Sarah Hendrickson, Mat's mom, is hopeful the MatHat will work. (Katie Breen/CBC)

The team — comprised of Dornan, Gillespie, Grace Clarke and Jack Chapman — doesn't receive course credit for the MatHat. They created it in their own time, but given their love for their nine-year-old inspiration, they say the exercise was time very well spent.

"I'm optimistic that they'll get this and it'll mean really great things for Matthew," his mom said.

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