Testing a design approach for wearables assisting autistic adults

Some time ago I was involved in a project together with Vejle Municipality in Denmark and the Design School Koldings Lab for Social Inclusion. We worked with staff from Spurvetoften in Brejning – an accommodation facility for 37 adults with autism and significant physical and mental disabilities.

Wearables can assist adults with autism in sustaining simple tasks in every day life. Digital visual guides worn closely on the body maintains adults with autism to live a more independent life, even though they are accompanied by learning disabilities and need lifetime specialist support.

When designing wearables with digital visual guidance for adults with autism a multidisciplinary design approach seems the point of focus and agenda to activate and include all actors in the design process. Adults with autism should foremost be the centre of this process as well as the personnel that work’s with them, also characterised as every-day experts. To fulfil a multidisciplinary approach fields of disciplines to be involved could be relatives, service designers, industrial designers, software designers, programmers and computer scientists etc. This manifest participatory design interfered with co-design activities to engage all actors in the multidisciplinary collaboration to design usable and successful product outcomes.

Nevertheless does these processes also virtues cooperation, curiosity, creativity, empowerment and reflexivity – processes that seems multifaceted and challenging in their practices. To address this, I am testing an accessory approach as a co-design method to be part of an early stage participatory design project outcome.

The accessory approach is relevant as an accessory is also an object worn closely to the body. Furthermore an accessory has embedded social, functional, aesthetic, conceptual and material preferences to be of interest in its wearable qualities. This was presented to the management of Spurvetoften, who agreed in taking part in the project.

The specific project focuses on an accessory approach to research the objectives of future wearables, of concerns and opportunities as well as the experience of making prototypes of wearable digital visual guides for adults with autism.

Working with autistic users the experience of over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light and colours is existing to some of the individuals living there. These facts challenge the task of designing wearable digital visual guides and therefore affect the role of the designer. In response to this, Spurvetoften contacted Design School Kolding, to educate their workers in creative methods and design processes to develop ideas that could help the adults with autism to be more independent, comfortable and structured in every day tasks.

As part of my PhD project, three adults with autism were chosen by the workers to be part of the project. To inspire the workers in their design methodology an accessory approach was presented. The aim of my PhD project is to study intimacy aspects of accessories and wearables – for citizens with specific needs.


One management leader, two pedagogues and one occupational therapist was presented for the accessory approach, which is a methodology that combines social study techniques with design methods to understand emotional values in existing accessories. This insight generates knowledge production of personal preferences of the possessors of the accessories. This initiated an investigation, taken out by the workers from Spurvetoften on behalf of the adults with autism, of their existing favourite accessories. These were among others a pair of headphones, a bag, toys, clothing garments and jewellery pieces. The workers also interviewed fellow colleagues about the adults with autism’s preferred touch experiences, favourite materials and other types of preferable sensory stimulus. The methodology is inspired by an ethnographic study of exploring people’s favourite garments, to understand use patterns and people’s emotional connections to clothes. The workers then used design methods to cluster the new knowledge gained from the investigation. Next step for the workers were to study the materials of objects similar to the collected favourite accessories, to start creating wearable prototypes based on the preferable existing accessories of the possessors.


In a second workshop the prototypes where presented to collect insight of the findings throughout the exploration as well as comforting the workers in their new and inexperienced ventures. The workshop was held together with another design professional from the Design School Kolding to guide and teach the workers, and to assure that their hard work had a valuable effect to the further process. The prototypes generated new knowledge about social and material meaning for the adults with autism, and developed a deeper understanding of the complexities in designing wearables for them.

Consequently one could question the aesthetics and looks of the presented prototypes to not fulfil qualified and relevant objects for others taking on the further venture of designing the wearables. Yet the methodology has been found important to indulge an empathic and citizen-driven design approach, rather than a technology-driven approach. This was accomplished by the every-day experts acting as designers of meaning-making objects, to understand issues and challenges in equipping the adults with autism, with wearables that could guide them in different tasks.

The cooperation with the Design School Kolding – Spurvetoften processed curiosity, creativity, empowerment and reflexivity in the workers efforts of making prototypes in their new ventures of co-designing wearables. The prototypes becomes meaning-making objects to operate as vehicles for a collectively exploration to test how digital visual guides can be worn, and what the challenges are if that wearer is an adult with autism. The results from this experiment could then be added to a participatory design approach as the prototypes made, could be shared in cooperation with the other actors. These to be specialist in the area of practicing and making wearables that digitally and visually can guide the user in everyday tasks.


Concluding remarks, also to favour the PhD project scope the intention of approaching the design task for the pedagogues based on existing accessories, shapes a design methodology that could be embedded in several user-scenarios when framing design projects to invent the future perspectives of wearables in health and wellbeing contexts.

The project will be part of my PhD thesis due 1st of April 2019. Published material on the  project can be found in the working paper: tangible-dialogue-tools or in book chapter 6 in “Innovation i Sundhedsvæsenet” (Only in Danish), from Gads Forlag.

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