How can we design for autism?

Published:  March 3, 2014

As a complex condition with degrees of severity, autism can influence how people make sense of the world and how they communicate with others. Around 125 000 people in Australia are estimated to be autistic, and on a global scale, the condition can always be better understood with more sophisticated management strategies, improving the lives of those affected.

Researchers at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design have been working with autism charity the Kingwood Trust and consultancy BEING to develop designs to improve the quality of life for people affected by autism, through simple objects, adjustments and the daily activities they participate in. Through this research, the designs take into account the ‘unusual and complex sensory responses’, like a love of pattern and repetition.

A topic discussed by socially-aware designers for some time, this research emerges just as Michael Wolff makes a very public call for designers to shift their focus away from the ‘young and able-bodied’.

The research program has so far produced five projects and a set of handbooks (which can be downloaded for free) which highlight the challenges and opportunities when designing for people with autism, covering designs for housing, outdoor environments, living environments and everyday activities.

Sensory preference cards

The Hubble Bubble Vacuum Cleaner

It is an excellent opportunity and challenge for designers, where design so often neglects the sensory needs of disabled, marginalised or unwell people. The research provides an entry point into finding ways to improve living through thoughtful applications and systems of design. For example, the Sensory preference cards can be used to determine the sensory preferences of people with autism who have limited verbal speech or additional learning difficulties. The cards feature swatches and illustrations, such as ‘bright natural light’ and ‘touching silky fabrics’, through which designers can make more informed interior design choices on what the affected person may prefer. The Hubble Bubble Vacuum Cleaner responds to the research findings that washing up was a particularly popular everyday activity among people with autism, largely due to the bubbles produced. A Henry Hoover was adapted with bubble mix so that it blows bubbles when used, which also offsets the negative effect of noise for those hypersensitive to sound.

The Fiddle-Brick

Inspired by the building blocks and construction games by Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori, the Fiddle-Brick is another example of the designs that invites participants to stretch, push, pull and rotate individual brick elements to create new shapes. The researchers found that engaging with sensory objects can help people with autism explore and test their senses.

See the research findings in more detail, and as printable documents, at Kingwood Trust

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