Designing for Autism: A Work In Progress

Feb 15, 2016 · 5 min read

TLDR: David and I are bringing together designers for autism. We need help. Scroll to the bottom to see how you can help!

Meet my classmate David Mahmarian. When David’s younger brother Paul was just 2 years old, he was diagnosed with severe autism.

David’s parents explained to him that Paul might not ever be able to speak. Since then, he’s always been trying to find innovative ways to communicate with him.

When Paul was diagnosed in 1992, the rate of autism diagnosis was 1 in 5,000. Today, it is 1 in 68, with about 25 percent who are nonverbal.

Paul (left) and David as children.

About 6 years ago, Paul started learning how to navigate an iPad application to help him communicate. It was at that moment that David began to pursue interaction design, with the hopes of someday creating a better product that could help people like Paul communicate. Since embarking on the Interaction Design program at SVA, he’s dedicated his research to this topic.

David’s Struggles

I’ve watched him struggle through these questions as he tried to design for Paul. It was during one of our conversations that we realized: why don’t we just open these questions up to the people who have done it before? Why isn’t there a ready source of guidelines and frameworks for approaching designing for autism?

Designers for Autism

We think there’s a big opportunity to bring together people who have been designing everything beyond therapies — architecture and environments, hardware, software, apparel, graphic communication — to share what they have learnt and how they’ve crafted a process unique to this particular audience. And there are many ways that we can do this: through a big event, or through smaller workshops, discussions, or content creation.

Sensory-friendly apparel has started to emerge for autistic individuals, such as Independence Day Clothing.

We want to organize an event to bring together designers who have created products and services for the autistic community to share their learnings.

Embedded within this desire to bring designers together is a broader question we want to test: could a whole design discipline be established around designing for the autistic community? Can we call it “autism design”? While organizing an event would be a great start, what would really excite us is to see participants take the connections they’ve developed and learnings they’ve exchanged, and push this discipline further. Perhaps a set of frameworks for autism design could even develop out of this.

It is really important to us that the autistic community becomes a big part of this discipline, perhaps even taking on a leadership role.

The new CADB center designed by daSilva Architects.
The LOLA App created by Tech Kids Unlimited in 2015.

Help us out!

The only way we’re going to find answers is to get out and talk to people who have done this before. You can help us find them!

  1. Have created a product or a solution for the autistic community
  2. Are stakeholders in the autistic community, and are interested in design
  3. Have successfully crowdfunded events
  4. Have evangelized design within sectors and communities where design has previously not been a priority

Know anyone who might be interested to talk to us? Please please send them our way: you can reach David at (Twitter: @dmahmarian) or me at (@kohzy). You can also subscribe to our mailing list to stay informed as we move ahead with our event:

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