Help is in the Bag
9 October 2017 at 8:44 am
Emily Whish-Wilson is a full-time special education teacher and the founder of Bustle Bags, therapy backpacks for children with autism. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Whish-Wilson started Bustle Bags in December 2016 having seen first-hand the struggles families of children with special needs faced in everyday life.
She had witnessed the calming effect deep pressure therapy could have on highly autistic and anxious children and thought “it would be great” to have something these children could use every day, with deep pressure therapy incorporated into it.
So Bustle Bags – Australia’s first-ever backpack designed with tools to empower people with autism, anxiety and special needs – was born.
The functional backpacks include clasps on the straps to attach sensory tools, specially designed “hugging” padded straps to mimic a compression vest, and a reinforced durable bottom with a waterproof zipper compartment.
In less than a year, Whish-Wilson has sold more than 200 bags.
And, the full-time special education teacher from Melbourne has just been named the People’s Choice winner at the Australian Women’s Weekly Women of the Future Awards, which honour young Australian women achieving incredible things.
The scholarship will now allow Whish-Wilson to travel for research and development.
In this week’s Changemaker she talks about why she loves her job, helping children function better in their everyday lives, and why she is looking forward to maternity leave so she can build her business.
How did you come to start Bustle Bags?
I was working as a full time special needs teacher and I was constantly seeing parents of children with autism struggling with strategies and they would be declining invitations to go to birthdays or struggling to go to the grocery store, or go on holidays because being in the car or on flights was an anxious and highly strung time for the child.
So I thought how great would it be to have a functional product, that all children use and incorporate deep pressure therapy into it, which I’d witnessed actually had a calming effect on children with autism who suffered from anxiety. And from that I designed a backpack that children were able to wear that would obviously have deep pressure therapy incorporated into it and was able to calm children when they were out and about.
How does the bag help children function better in their everyday lives?
So like anyone, giving people hugs or weighted vests give that calming effect for any individual and so on this backpack it has a padded vest and it actually has a heat belt that you can pull that gives them that feeling of being hugged. It also has velour and different sensory parts of the backpack. With autism, children are stimulated by different senses and so we incorporated all the different senses into the bag. It is quite durable so they can take it anywhere and there are clasps on it so you can hang sensory items off it.
As you mentioned, the idea came from your experience of being a special needs teacher. Why did you decide to become a special needs teacher?
When I was teaching I wasn’t feeling that feeling of “I love my job”. And it wasn’t until I started working with children with special needs and breaking down those learning barriers for those that were a little bit disadvantaged, that I really started to find satisfaction in what I was doing.
From that, that’s where I started to go: “This is what I want to do”. I want to make a difference, I want to break down those barriers and give a pathway to those children and help them fit into society in the best way possible.
Since launching Bustle Bags, what response have you been getting from parents?
It has been great. Since we launched in December, we’ve sold over 200 backpacks and that is mostly in Australia and that is from word of mouth, and going around to schools and parents discussing and being in newsletters. So that’s probably just over six months and it’s been really positive.
You were named People’s Choice winner at The Australian Women’s Weekly, Women of the Future Awards. How does it feel to be recognised for the contribution you are making?
It was such a shock. It is amazing and it will be such a game changer for Bustle Bags. We’ll be able to continue the research and development, the products can evolve and we can continue to do a variety of different things, that’s what is was all about. But it was so great. Obviously autism is such a huge thing and with diagnosis happening all the time, I was very humbled and privileged to be given the People’s Choice.
What will the scholarship allow you to do?
So it is $12,500 Qantas flights and bursary, and that will allow me to fly to different schools around and visit them and see what products are needed in certain places in Australia and the world and be able to employ like a product designer or someone who will help it evolve and improve my products and my backpack. It will be just amazing.
It is still early days, but what are your aims for Bustle Bags?
I want to continue to know the special needs space and keep up with what is happening and how we can be better. I want to be able to have like 20-plus employees down the track that have the same vision that I do and continue to be making a difference and making those who are more vulnerable around us, continuing to raise awareness to parents and say hey we do have products out there that can help you and help your life be a little bit easier and more inclusive and not so isolated.
You are a full time teacher and you have Bustle Bags, how do you find time for yourself?
It is really funny, I am actually 30 weeks pregnant as well. It is pretty sad when you’re looking forward to maternity leave to build your business. I knew that I was pregnant when we found out about the Australian Women’s Weekly award, I was early stages of my pregnancy so I’ve been able to build it and plan it and have everything work. So when I do stop work to have my baby, I’ve got things in place where I’ll be able to work with Bustle Bags as well. It is very exciting, and it has kind of all worked in really well.
But I’m also really lucky because what my job entails as a teacher kind of links with Bustle Bags so I can continually ask therapists, I can talk to colleagues, I can ask for people’s opinions. So that’s been a big part of the success of Bustle Bags as well.