When we began this project, our team wanted to focus on a population often overlooked by the design world, and thoughtfully chose individuals with special needs with plans to narrow our scope after conducting some interviews. We also established a set of goals for our team, which helped us devise a plan of action and direct our interviews. Having spent the past five years volunteering with kids with special needs, I immediately sought out these families and inquired about their children's specific disabilities and their daily successes, fallbacks and needs.
Through these interviews and goal-setting exercises we quickly came to a few realizations:
(1) Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is extremely prevalent and came up during most of our interviews. In the US, 1 out of 68 children is diagnosed with ASD. As studies and research on autism have increased, so have the resources and programs that educate people and support families. Unfortunately, these advancements are fairly recent so very few products exist that address even the most basic needs of many individuals on the spectrum.
(2) ASD encompasses an extremely wide range of behaviors and anything we built would need to take this into account and allow for some degree of customizability. One person may love listening to a sound that completely overwhelms another individual on the spectrum. I repeatedly heard the popular saying coined by Dr. Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism."
(3) Though voids exist at all stages of life for those with autism and special needs in general, we noticed that there was an extreme lack of tools available to young adults as they transition from the structure of the schooling system into the real world. Parents with older children (16+) repeatedly expressed a desire for their sons/daughters to become more independent, and many of these teens and young adults conveyed a similar feeling. Yet a lack of relevant tools can make this goal especially challenging. In the words of Sue (picture below), on her 20-year-old daughter with ASD, "I know she's capable and I know she can do it. So we just have to get over that bridge so that she remembers to do it on her own. I'm not always going to be around to remind her."
Early stage interview with our dear friend and amazing mother Sue, who tells us about her daughter
(3) One of the most frequent unfulfilled needs we heard revolved around maintaining healthy and consistent hygiene habits for teens and young adults. In fact, poor hygiene is one of the main reasons individuals with special needs get fired from their jobs. We spoke with over 50 educators, parents, and health professionals, all of whom expressed desire for more resources and products that cater to the hygiene needs of people on the autism spectrum.
Not only is hygiene a necessary life skill, but it is also a deeply intimate one. We found that a lot of the teenagers/young adults we spoke to resented their parents involvement in showering or going to the bathroom, but needed this intervention to effectively complete the task at hand. Likewise, many parents felt extreme frustration regarding their involvement, and brightened at the thought of a product that may lighten the load and help their child become more independent.
Toothbrushing and bathing/showering came up most frequently, but other concerns included going to the bathroom, hand-washing, period maintenance for women, and general concerns regarding sexual conduct and awareness. From there, we began the ideation process and brainstormed a plethora of potential solutions focused on toothbrushing and showering. Our goal is to create a product that aligns the interests of the parents, who want quality showering to occur with their children, and the goals of their young adults, who desire autonomy.