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list of illustrations Cover page - Jigsaw image. From Funandlearnmath Website (Google Images). URL: (15.12.11) Fig. 1: Video still from Richard Seymour: How beauty feels, TED talks video. URL: http:// (15.11.11) Fig. 2: Hierarchical stimuli consistent/inconsistent letters image. From the American Psychology Association Website (Google Images). URL: index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2003-04481-002 (09.11.11) Fig. 3: The perspective of a circle, Step by Step Perspective. From Aathi Art Rules Blog. URL: (09.11.11) Fig. 4: Rome Panorama by Steven Wiltshire. From Steven Wiltshire’s Official Website. URL: (10.11.11) Fig. 5: Bowman heavy duty hydraulic squeeze chute image. From the Bowman Livestock Equipment Company Website. URL: heavy_hydraulic_squeeze_chute.html (14.12.11) Fig. 6: Video still from Temple Grandin, 2010. TV Film. HBO Films & Ruby Films, 2010. Directed by Mick Jackson. USA. Fig. 7: Feed yard curved working area. From Grandin Livestock Handling Systems Website. URL: (15.12.11)

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


Autism and Design: Could the inherent perceptual and cognitive differentials of autism influence an individual’s aptitude towards design practice?

synopsis This dissertation investigates the possibility that particular impairments of autism could enhance an individuals creative abilities and potentially attract an individual to creative practices. The study focuses primarily on the field of design, though references other fields such as architecture, and savant art. Through source research into the cognitive attributes of autism and studies into known designers with autism, this dissertation attempts to understand if perceptual and cognitive differences of the autistic mind potentially relate to contemporary design thinking.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


introduction aims This dissertation aims to investigate the theory that the impairments of autism could enhance an individuals creative abilities and potentially attract an individual to the creative practices. It will address a selection of perceptual, cognitive and behavioural elements and their effect on an individual’s creative process. It will focus primarily on the field design and the processes surrounding it, but will take account where applicable of other creative practices. Through a range of sources looking at cognitive aspects of autism and design, this study will attempt to create an understanding of the relationship between the autistic mind and the design mind. Using case studies of known creative people with autism it will attempt to define their design processes and compare them to contemporary design practice.

an introduction to autistic spectrum conditions The cover image shows a jigsaw puzzle, a symbol chosen to represent the autistic spectrum. Some believe autism is a puzzle that we are still working out, while others believe that the assembly of the puzzle represents the many contributing traits of the autistic spectrum (, 2007). Both of these suggestions are equally true. Mark Osteen, professor of English literature and film studies at Loyola University Maryland, has focused most of his recent literature on autism spectrum conditions. His relatively simplified description of autism states: The prevailing diagnosis classification of autism lists a triad of impairments: in social integrations, language acquisition and use, “imaginative” interests and behaviours. A consensus has begun to emerge that autism (or some percentage of autism spectrum disorders) is caused by a not-yet-understood confluence of genetic predisposition and environmental influence. (Osteen, 2007:9) Osteen’s definition has been chosen for four reasons. At it’s most basic level, it outlines the differences associated with autism and how they compare to neurotypical individuals. Neurotypical is a term used by the autistic community to describe those who are not on the Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


autistic spectrum. While in regards to the term ‘autistic’, Morton Gernsbacher, et al (2007), Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison refers to autism rights activist Jim Sinclair (1999), to appreciate the respectful use of the term ‘autistic’ rather than ‘person with autism’. This dissertation will use both terms throughout. Secondly, the definition makes no use of terms such as disease, symptoms, or cure. A trait an individual is born with and that subsequently defines their personality and individuality, should not be considered with the same tone as a medical condition such as bacterial meningitis. Hans Asperger, the pediatrician who first defined the autistic spectrum now known as ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’, states: Not everything that steps out of line, and thus ‘abnormal’, must necessarily be inferior. (Asperger, 1938) This dissertation will attempt not to address autism as a manner of illness but rather as a form of social diversity. Thirdly, the word imaginative is contained in inverted commas. Many definitions of autism state a lack of imagination due to a fondness of repetitive behaviours, a common trait in autism. Psychologist Tony Attwood (2007), specialist in autistic spectrum conditions, describes impairments in the imagination of children with autism using the following criteria. One, a lack of varied, spontaneous play. Two, an inability to generate spontaneous, unscripted or ‘unplagiarised’ fiction. Or three, a lack of interest in fiction, or interest in fiction restricted by it’s potential basis in fact, for example science fiction. However, the desire for routine or lack of spontaneity does not directly remove one’s ability to imagine or create, even though this ability may be based in fact. This article attempts to prove that attributes of autism can enhance an individuals ability to explore the world in which we live from different perspectives, creating original and unforeseen creative outcomes. Finally, the inclusion of the term ‘not-yet-understood’. Despite many attempts to identify a specific causality for autism, none has been identified. The only way to identify autism is through behavioural observation and screening. Attwood (2007) outlines a typical diagnostic assessment performed by an experienced clinician. He states that impairments are searched for in the domains of social reasoning, communication of emotions, language

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


and cognitive abilities, interests, movement and coordination skills, sensory perception and self-care skills. New brain scanning technology (BBC News Health, 2010) is rumored to be close to identifying physical causes of autism. The majority of experts in the field of autism remain skeptical due to the individual conditions associated with the autistic spectrum. The identification of physical contributions to autism could possibly bring us a better understanding and potentially a method of prevention. However, if achievable, would the total eradication of autism enhance society or remove a section of gifted and unique individuals from our midst?

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!



- design thinking

Approaches to design are constantly changing. The aims and outcome of a design project can vary to the unique ideologies of a designer, it would be impossible to cover the full extent of contemporary design thinking and practice in this documentation. This study will not attempt to establish what would be considered good or bad design; instead it will break down a series of contemporary design theories in contextual relation to the discussion of the perceptual and cognitive abilities of autism to be discussed later in this dissertation.

user centric design User centric design is the practice in which the design process aims to fulfil the needs, wants and limitations of an identified end user (Sitepoint, 2003). These criteria can encompass anything from the fashionable to the functional, or the disposable to the sustainable. A designer may need to manage and combine many elements of an outcome to fulfil a user’s requirements. The common myth is that all design originates out of necessity, such as the first cave dweller who fashioned a blade from stone and attached it to the end of a stick, out of a need to feed himself, resulting in others identify the same tool as applicable to their personal situation and doing the same. An individual’s simple attempts to improve their personal quality of life can result in truly effective design outcomes. Design for oneself is a perfect example of user centred design, the designer should be able to quite easily identify their own criteria. This criteria is predictably harder to define for a user or users with little or no relation to the personal or contextual understandings of the designer. Technological advances challenged this simple notion of design. In contrast, many examples of design around new technology are also prevalent. David Nye, Professor of American history states:

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


Necessity is often not the mother of invention. In many cases, it surely has been just the opposite. When humans possess a tool, they excel at finding new uses for it. The tool often exists before the problem to be solved. (Nye, 2006). This does not dictate that needs are shoehorned in to new applications. The quote describes what could be considered the approach of technology centred design. The role of user centred design is to establish the suitable application of technology for the end user. Mica Endsley, Betty Bolté and Debra Jones (2003) suggest in their book Designing for Situation Awareness, that the philosophy of user centric design is an alternative to the ‘continuing complexities’ and subsequent errors of technology centred design. For example, ‘rather displaying information centred around the sensors and technologies that produce it, user centric design integrates this information into ways that fit the user’s needs, tasks and goals’. Ultimately this aims to achieve more efficient systems. A user centric approach tends to make outcomes incredibly bespoke, to understand the design process one must first understand the unique user scenario that is being designed for. To an extent ones ability to design for a user, comes for the ability to observe and identify the needs of others. Laura Slack (2006), Managing Director of Flo UK and author of Essential Design Handbooks: What is Product Design?, describes a need in the initial phases of the design process for an analytical understanding of first hand observations, perceived through a ‘personal context’. Understanding must be created for the interactions between people and people, people and objects, people and technology. Real observations are key to this, combined with an ability to empathise with the user’s expectations. Endsley, Bolté and Jones (2003) support this, suggesting that ‘high levels of situation awareness’ traditionally lead to more effective design outcomes. Endsley, Bolté, and Jones also state a common misconception regarding user centric situation awareness: User-centred design does not mean asking users what they want and giving it to them… while users are a valuable source of information… the unfiltered implementation of whatever they want completely neglects the large base of scientific literature. (Endsley, Bolté & Jones, 2003:6) This suggests the ability to identify problems and requirements from observation unbiased by users opinion is key to effective user centred design. The criteria of the unique scenario must be balanced with an understanding of all read established effective Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


solutions and implementations. User centric design could be perceived as a challenge for autistic individuals due to an associated social impairment. This becomes evident in the analyse of autistic perception and cognition in the next chapter.

granular thinking Granular thinking is relatively new as a positive term, subsequently there is little source material regarding it’s benefits. The term ‘granular’ is used to describe the small details of a system, and tends to be used as a critical buzz word in corporate situations (Fast Company: 2008). From the perspective of design the ability to focus on and address smaller details to improve the completed product or system, is now being realised as a highly beneficial approach. A possible comparison and example of the power of a granular approach could be the New York transit authority’s application of Broken Window theory in the 1980s, as described by Malcolm Gladwell (2002) in his book The Tipping Point. By focusing on and successfully removing the relatively small problems of graffiti and turnstile ‘hopping’ from the New York Subway System; all subway related crime subsequently decreased. Granular thinking could easily be applied to many aspects of contemporary society, not just design practice. Designers are increasingly addressing the smaller details. Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer at IDEO, identifies this in his 2005 TED talk, Paul Bennett Finds Design in the Details. In service design in particular the ability to address the bottom levels of a system can result in the top levels resolving their own issues.

aesthetic, function and meaning The terms aesthetic, function and meaning, or similar terms, are used commonly to describe key aspects of design practice. A professional designer could spend their career devoted to just one of these ideals, or alternatively attempt to find middle ground between them. Academic specialist in the field of cognitive science and design, Donald A. Norman, discusses these three terminologies from a cognitive perspective in his book Emotional Design: ...three different levels of the brain: the automatic, prewired layer, called the visceral level; the part that contains the brain processes that control everyday

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


behaviour, known as the behavioural level; and the contemplative part of the brain, or the reflective level. (Norman, 2004:21) The visceral level refers to the aesthetic, and the ability to appeal to a users concept of beauty or attraction. The behavioural level refers to function, and how practical or enjoyable the design is to use. The reflective level refers to meaning, and can enter the realm of critical design offering social commentary or deeper contextual references. The likelihood for a design outcome to achieve all three criteria is rare, and often unnecessary. The aim is to find a suitable balance between aesthetic, function and meaning. Through these Norman attempts to offer a comprehensive explanation of the rational applications of design. He has been selected as a source due to his ability to define the elements of aesthetic, function and meaning in cognitive terms. This will enable later parallels to be drawn with the cognitive differences of autism. Aesthetic is as much cognitive as physical. As philosopher David Hume (1742) suggests, stating: “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” To some extent there is a recognised overlap in a common perception of attractiveness, however a concept of beauty is more likely to be an individual one. This makes a criteria for the judgment of an ‘ultimate’ aesthetic impossible. Traits of aesthetic can be drawn from current trends, established styles, or can be left to the end users discretion. In a user centred process continual feedback and reassessment from the user can help develop an outcomes appearance. Though some suggest that this should be left to the trained discretion of the designer. Appearance can also be changeable due to emotion and sentiment. The image of the child’s drawing below was displayed by designer Richard Seymour, in his 2011 TED talk entitled How Beauty Feels:

Fig. 1

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


An initial reaction is to presume that this is a father’s sentimental conception of beauty and not readily applicable to oneself. After a short pause Seymour states: “This is the last act on this earth, of a little girl call Heidi, five years old, before she died of cancer of the spine. It is the last thing she did. The last physical act. Look at that picture. Look at the innocence. Look at the beauty. Is it beautiful now?” (Seymour, 2011) Positive appearance can be altered by sentiment, and could be perceived as context sensitive and continually changeable. Beautiful outcomes in the absence of function or meaning rarely constitutes as effective or ‘good’ design. Norman (2004) describes that the judgement of appearance comes from the visceral level, designer’s rarely want their work to be identified solely as visceral as this holds a stigma in most design communities. At the same time Norman admits that there is place in society for the simplicity of “pretty, cute and fun” designs. The common consensus is design needs to fulfil a purpose, through function or meaning. Paul Ralph and Yair Wand, of the University of British Columbia, support this stating the following in their paper, A Proposal for a Formal Definition of the Design Concept: ...a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment. (Ralph & Wand, 2009:109) Function and meaning as entities can attempt to accomplish set goals, aesthetic alone, or even aesthetic with meaning could be considered as art rather than design. So seemingly function is a necessity. Function, or as Norman puts it, behavioural design focuses on use. As Norman (2004) states “Appearance doesn’t matter. Rational doesn’t matter. Performance does.” Function driven design may consider many elements including ergonomics, ease of use, the enjoyability of use and efficiency. The ability to achieve outcomes that meet each of these criteria could manifest from a designers previous experience or knowledge of proven practice, which are potentially applicable to the current scenario. As previously mentioned by Endsley, et al (2003) and Slack (2006), observation of the end user scenario is focal to functional design. Another important factor is the iteration of concepts and working prototypes within the context of the user and the scenario. Behavioural design can incorporate appearance as well, it could be claimed if a

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


device is so successful in its daily function, it can take a form of invisibility to the user (Norman, 1999). The final level of cognitive design, described by Norman (2004) as reflective design (or meaning). He describes this as being a broad topic, focusing on culture and semantics of design outcomes. This could refer to the practice of critical design, a topic not directly linked to the goals of this study. The reflective level can relate strongly to the expectations of society, which frequently if not directly can relate to the needs of the majority of end users. Socially orientated design can encompass many issues including environmental responsibility, sustainability, and any number of society driven ideals. An example of this is designer Thomas Thwaites’s (2011) The Toaster Project, in which Thwaites attempted to build a complete toaster from base raw materials. The final toaster he manufactured only functioned for five seconds before the heating element melted itself. The purpose of this work is the commentary looking at global industry and this society’s detachment from it. From the perspective of the designer, social ideals can not be ignored.

design resolve Problem solving is a significant part of design, this could range from simple ergonomic issues to major systematic inconstancies. According to Slack (2006), conception often begins with pen and paper sketch work, sketching by hand offers a natural freedom and unique style to a designers work. This platform limits the number of issues that can be resolved. From sketch work comes a need to translate ideas into varying forms of reality, this is where prototyping is implemented. Slack states: Prototypes, as vehicles for communication, provide all team members with a tangible means with which to validate the product before it goes into production. (Slack, 2006:98) Both sketching and prototype modelling are skill based activities. A designer needs to develop these skills to effectively communicate ideas to others. The successful communication of concepts to an end user enables them to positively and negatively critique the work of the designer. This iterative feedback is directly related to creating an outcome that meets the user’s requirements. Apart from communication, prototypes also create in cases a three dimensional platform to assess ergonomic or aesthetic issues. This Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


enables an iterative process, that enables testing and can cycle many times before a final resolution is met. The identification and resolution of minute details are key in prototyping, contributing to the perfection of a design outcome. Though the topics presented in this chapter only cover a small section of design as a whole, many of them are applied across a variety of fields and movements. All of the design elements and theories discussed in this chapter bare relation to the context of autism. This will become more apparent in the following chapters.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!



- autistic thinking

This chapter aims to look at a selection of source material regarding the perceptive and cognitive differences of autism. These specific topics have been chosen for their potential application to topics already presented in the previous chapter.

weak central coherence theory Weak Central Coherence Theory, originally defined by Uta Frith and Francesca Happé (Frith 1989, 2003; Frith & Happé 1994; Happé 1999) of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, states a potential for autistic individuals to have astounding attention to detail. This detail acuity can range from precision to compulsion. The Weak Central Coherence generates other attributes, Frith and Happé also identify a reduced ability to generalise or perceive the ‘gist’ of situations or stimuli, in comparison to neurotypical individuals. Reduced generalisation could be an explanation, if not a contributing factor to sensory sensitivity, as an individual is unable to filter out surrounding activities or distractions. According to Attwood (2007), this fragmental perspective on the world could also lead to an inability to decipher what is relevant and irrelevant within a situation. He relates this aspect of weak central coherence to the need for an individual to create structured routines through Therese Jolliffe, Richard Lansdown and Clive Robinson’s paper, Autism a Personal Account: Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights. There seem to be no clear boundaries, order or meaning to anything. A large part of my life is spent just trying to work out the pattern behind everything. Set routines, times, particular routes and rituals all help to get order into an unbearably chaotic life. (Jolliffe, Lansdown, & Robinson, 1992:16) In contrast, neurotypical people have a natural ability to filter stimuli that their brain considers unnecessary. Professors of psychology, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (1999), well known ‘Gorillas in our Midst’ experiment could be used as an extreme

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


example of neurotypical generalisation. Participants were asked to count the number of passes in a video of a basket ball game. During play, a woman in a gorilla costume walks to centre screen beats her chest and walks off. The results showed that fifty percent of all participants did not see the gorilla. This demonstrates how neurotypical individuals tend to generalise their environment, they see what they expect to see. The experiment was never run with autistic individuals, though Temple Grandin (2005), an individual with high functioning autism and doctor in animal science, believes that there would be a likelihood autistic participants would identify the gorilla. High functioning autism refers to individuals who showed classic signs of autism at an early age, however over time developed greater levels of intellectual, communication, social and adaptive abilities than is usual for people with autism (DeMyer, et al, 1981). The attributes of weak central coherence theory, to an extent, supports Grandin’s opinion though there is no conclusive evidence. Kate Plaisted (2001), of the department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University, also supports the theory of reduced generalisation in autistic individuals in comparison to neurotypical individuals. Laurent Mottron, Michelle Dawson, Isabelle SouliÊres, Benedicte Hubert, and Jake Burack (2006; Mottron & Belleville 1993), of the University of MontrÊal, suggest that people with autism process hierarchical stimuli alternatively to neurotypical people. The image below can be used to demonstrate this:

Fig. 2

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


An autistic individual is more adapt at identifying the smaller letters (the local) comprising the larger letters, and are slower to identify the large letter themselves (the global). This could also be reflective of Plaisted’s (2001) support of the reduced generalisation theory, through a visual example. Psychology professors, Gnanathusharan Rajendran and Peter Mitchell summarise hierarchical stimuli as follows: ...the bulk of the evidence points towards a uniquely autistic interference from the local to global, that compares with the more common (neurotypical) asymmetrical interference from the global to the local. (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007:241)

visual thinking Visual thinking is not a new concept, it describes a non-verbal method of cognitive processing. The term visual thinking covers a variety of alternative visual thinking processes, such as eidetic memory. In this use it will refer to the minds ability or preference to store information as images or ‘picture thinking’. Francis Galton (1911), Victorian polymath, describes pictorial thinking in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Development. He defines what he considers low pictorial thinkers as verbal, symbol or fact thinkers: To my consciousness there is almost no association of memory to objective visual impressions. I recollect the breakfast table but I do not see it. (Galton, 1911:64) Autistic visual thinking is a concept promoted by Grandin. She (Grandin, 2010) describes herself as thinking in pictures, rather than remembering dialogue she stores information as a series of images, she relates this to Google Images. She argues that people with autism, like her, are most likely to be visual thinkers. Strong associations could be drawn between visual thinking and the lack of verbal ability in autistic people; there are many examples of autistic children having no speech to four or five years old. Neurotypical people do have the ability to think in pictures as well. Grandin (2006) suggests that the disadvantage in language improves the extent to which an autistic individual can visualise their cogitation. Grandin (2005) also relates the ability to think in pictures to detail acuity. She refers to her experiences of interior designers being able to spot minuscule mistakes Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


in contractors work, and continually when referencing her design work with animals. This will be discussed later in a case study of Grandin’s work. Visual thinking draws some comparisons to the potential perceptive ability caused by the weak central coherence. According to Rajendran (Interview, 2011) the concept of visual thinking remains subjective. There is no method of “getting into someones mind” to prove their individual thought process, and it is not possible to prove Grandin’s claims through contemporary objective experiments.

top down processing Top down processing is a perceptual theory that suggests cognition is altered by an individual’s expectation and existing knowledge. In a study conducted by Danielle Ropar and Peter Mitchell (2002), of the University of Nottingham, autistic and neurotypical individuals were asked to visually recreate a circle viewed through a slot. The circle was contained within a box, so could only be viewed from the angle of the slot. This angle gave the circle the appearance of an ellipse, as demonstrated by the image below:

Fig. 3

In some cases participants entered the room and the box would be open, showing that the shape inside was actually a circle. Neurotypical participants in these cases, were biased by their prior knowledge when asked to replicate the shape and drew it fatter than it actually appeared. This is a general rule in psychology according to Rajendran (Interview, 2011), one’s expectations tend to influence outcomes. However, in this study the majority of autistic participates who saw the circle before the task, showed less biased observations and replicated the ellipse more accurately. This example of visual perception Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


could relate to another trait associated with autistic individuals, honesty. In children in particular, this can sometimes lead to social embarrassment. Attwood (2007) defines a possible scenario, in which an autistic child suggests to an overweight women that she should go on a diet. From the child’s perspective they have performed a service to this woman, the concept of impoliteness is not part of the process. This social example of honesty, may relate to the same cognitive process that resulted in the autistic participants in Ropar and Mitchell’s experiment accurately representing what they could see.

savantism Autistic individuals tend to have specialised areas of interest. According to Attwood (2007), these special interests surpass hobby status and can dominate an individuals life. In the BBC documentary Make Me Normal (2005) special interests are shown to encompass anything from calendar dates to episodes of soap dramas. Asperger describes his observations of specialist interests in his work with autistic children below: We know an autistic child who has a particular interest in the natural sciences. His observations show an unusual eye for the essential. He orders his facts into a system and forms his own theories even if they are occasionally abstruse. Hardly any of this is heard or read, and he always refers to his own experience. There is also a child who is a ‘chemist’. He uses all his money for experiments which create noise and smells. Another autistic boy was obsessed with poisons, some quite naively concocted by himself. He came to us because he had stolen a substantial quantity of cyanide from the locked chemistry store at his school. Another, again was preoccupied by numbers. Complex calculations were naturally easy for him without being taught. (Asperger, [1944] 1991:72) There is no conclusive explanation for talents in specialist interests. Simon BaronCohen, Director of the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre, suggests that it may be traced to a need to classify and systemise one’s surroundings. Savantism was described by psychiatrist Darold Treffert (1989), as an uncommon condition that includes brilliance in one field with severe intellectual limitations in almost all others. Savantism seems to stem from specialist interests, however the field of interest tends to have application in contemporary society for someone to be identified as a Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


savant. For example, an individual who excels at memorising every event of a soap drama is much less likely to be deemed a savant, than one who has memorised the same amount of information regarding calculus. A savants ability within their field of interest tends to extend beyond the abilities of the majority of neurotypical individuals. Although there is no conclusive evidence explaining savant abilities, Happé and Vital (2009) in their publication, What Aspects of Autism Predispose to Talent, suggest that savant talent lies in an eye for detail and the ability to avoid generalisation. According to Happé & Frith (2009) there is a general agreement that not all savants have developmental disorders such as autism. This does not indicate that savant abilities do not share the same cognitive characteristics. Happé & Frith continue to suggest that an ‘eye for detail’ could be a contributing factor to savant-like ability. In a comparison of autistic and non-autistic savants conducted at the Boston College Department of Psychology, by Jennifer Drake and Ellen Winner (2009); observed a higher ability in fragmentation and visual memory skills in participants with autism. Nonetheless, they identified a distinct benefit from a sense of global coherence in the savants without autism. Happé and Frith also identify a potential sympathetic perspective that may discredit the artistic work of savants: One of the thorny questions that savant art in particular raises is whether we admire the art works for their own sake or because they were produced by a savant. (Happé & Frith, 2009:1346) Most art forms are open to critique, it is hard to quantify a subject that can be so subjective and personal. In context to design a criteria to measure the success of an outcome can typically be identified. Arguably this could give savant design work more creditability than just sympathy for it’s creator.

obsession to success Michael Howe, Jane Davidson and John Sloboda (1998) suggest in their paper, Innate talents: Reality or Myth, that ninety nine percent of ‘genius’ can be attributed to practice. The question posed therefore, if an individual is driven to obsessively think about a specific topic, can they attain an expertise in that field from continual subconscious practice? A Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


study conducted by Katherine Woollett, Hugo Spires & Eleanor Maguire (2009), of University College London, investigated memory capabilities of London black cab drivers. The study showed that a driver’s ability to memorise the complex internal street map of London decreased after retirement when working practice stopped. HappÊ and Frith (2009), draw attention to the fact that over sixty percent of the candidates who begin the three year black cab training course drop out, suggesting an innate talent. The debate whether savant skill can be traced to obsessive practice or an inherent ability still remains without conclusion. Based on the evidence, the likelihood is savantism stems from a combination of both.

steven wiltshire British architectural artist, Steven Wiltshire is an autistic savant. The image below shows Wiltshire working on one of his panoramic cityscapes. This one of Rome, took two days to draw after a single forty five minute helicopter ride over the city.

Fig. 4

The completed work is remarkably accurate. The explanation for Wiltshire’s ability is scientifically unexplained. He is recorded as having a love and ability for drawing from a young age, through proper support he had formal training at City and Guilds of London Art School. So a combination of natural ability and continual practice is evident. One theory for his ability draws from weak central coherence and the reduced generalisation theory. Grandin (2005) describes the neurotypical concept of perspective drawing, as thousands of pieces coming together to create an unified whole automatically. This results in a

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


perceived notion of a building rather than the building itself. An autistic person has a fragmental approach, this enables segments of the building to be captured and then constructed resulting in a more accurate completed picture.

autism and architecture Architecture is a recurring topic of interest to individuals with autism. Wiltshire’s unexplained choice to draw architecture over all other material. Liane Holiday Willey (1999), writer and educator with Asperger’s syndrome, confesses a love of architecture, though she was unable to indulge this passion, as she did not have the co-ordination and mathematical abilities required. Attwood (2007) identifies several architects, though does not name them, with personality characteristics that suggest possible autism. There have been multiple reports of children with autism being remarkably proficient with the architectural software, Sketch Up (The Daily Beast, 2009). French autistic savant, Gilles Trehin’s love of architecture has resulted in him drawing and rationalising a complete fictional city (Wisconsin Medical Society, 2011). Professionals in the field of autism, often speculate the autistic attributes of architects. Baron-Cohen (2004) suggests that English architect, Michael Ventris was on the autistic spectrum. While psychiatrist, Michael Fitzgerald (2004), suggests that philosopher, Lugwid Wittgenstein, was possibly autistic. Though architecture was not Wittgenstein’s primary occupation, he was given the opportunity to exercise his interest and ideals when commissioned to design a house for his sister. Fitzgerald, in regards to Haus Wittgenstein (as it was named), calls it’s style “autistic perfectionism”, and remarks on it’s focus on minimalism, functionality and spacial balance, rather than comfort. Fitzgerald goes on to refer to the “logic” of Wittgenstein’s design work, a seemingly admirable quality. However, in the context of a home it’s minimalism could be considered unsuitable. Wittgenstein had little input with the exterior design, rather focused on detailed perfectionism of the windows, doors, door knobs, and radiators (Waugh, 2010). This could draw potential comparisons to an autistic favour for the local elements of the design process. Other professionals, including Attwood (2000), agree a potential for Wittgenstein to be autistic, though there is no conclusive screening to support this. This dissertation will refer to his work as a potential example of autistic design.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


social impairment The nature of these children is revealed most clearly in their behaviour towards other people. Indeed their behaviour in the social group is the clearest sign of their disorder. (Asperger, [1944] 1991) An impairment in social understanding is still the clearest indication of autism. The cause of social impairments is not fully understood. Baron-Cohen (2004) proposes fundamental differences in systemising and empathising as a potential cause for this. Systemisation is evident in autism in behaviours such as routines and calendrical calculations. According to Baron-Cohen (2004), in systemisation an individual needs to detach in order to monitor and observe information. While an individual empathising requires a degree of attachment in order to interact with another person. Attachment is also required to understand their feelings, and that these feelings bare direct relation to one’s self. Attwood (2007) suggests that in solitude, all behavioural attributes of autism disappear. This is rarely possible in any contemporary society, many autistic individuals must find individual means of interaction with others. Asperger ([1944] 1991) suggests that neurotypical children instinctively learn social interaction skills, while instinctive relations are some how disrupted in autistic children. Asperger (1938) proposes that through a layout of social rules an individual with autism could be ‘assimilated into the community’. Attwood (2007) agrees suggesting that autistic individuals need tuition in specific social skills. The tuition given from a neurotypical perspective must also be considered. If an instructor has achieved these skills instinctually, the quality of understanding and communication to another may be potentially poor. An autistic individual holistically understanding the complexities of social interactions from instruction seems unlikely.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


the autistic spectrum Autism is a spectrum condition. It can be so severe that it prevents an individual from functioning in society or go so unnoticed that an individual is simply classed as being a bit eccentric. This impression of the gifted autistic eccentric is well stated, as HappĂŠ and Frith suggest: is now very likely that any eccentric scientist or artist, living or dead will come under the scrutiny for having autism or Asperger syndrome. (HappĂŠ & Frith, 2009:1345) Barron-Cohen in his book The Essential Difference (2004), states that autistic cognition potentially offers an explanation to typical differences in male and female minds. Males lack empathy but love to systemise their lives, while women are naturally more socially outgoing and instinctually caring. Of course this does not hold true in every case, but these generalised behaviours do link directly to autistic behaviours. Potentially a large number of the members of contemporary society could blur the boundary between what is considered normality and a defined start of the autistic spectrum.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!



- temple grandin: an autistic design process

As previously mentioned, Temple Grandin is a doctor of animal science with high functioning autism. Grandin is an advocate for ‘neurodiversity’ and a prominent member in the global autistic community. Though not formally trained as a designer, she is known for her corral and restraint designs for cattle, aimed at reducing stress on the animals during handling, and the ‘squeeze machine’ designed to calm hypersensitive individuals. This case study will attempt to understand the processes used in Grandin’s design work. This will be done through analysis of her biographical material, papers and talks she has given. Grandin states that her process is based in her ability to think in pictures. As she states: To create new designs, I retrieve bits and pieces from my memory and combine them into a new whole. My design ability keeps improving as I add more visual images to my library. (Grandin, 2005:5) Grandin goes on to describe the various pieces she borrows from existing cattle handling systems, and swimming pools to create a new dip vat at a feedlot. A dip vat is a long, narrow, seven foot deep pool filled with pesticide which cattle swim through to rid them of parasites. Though this could be considered design plagiarism, a scenario or application must be understood to judge whether a design outcome is successful, regardless of reapplied existing designs.

the squeeze machine The concept for the squeeze machine spawned from the reapplication of an existing device, the squeeze chute. According to Grandin (2005) the squeeze chute is a device used by vets to immobilise cattle as they are vaccinated. The device comprises of a ‘V’ shape of metal bars hinged at the bottom, pressure is applied through an air compressor which gentle clamps against the animals sides. An example of a typical hydraulic squeeze chute is shown below:

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


Fig. 5

Existing technologies are commonly reevaluated and applied to new scenarios. According to Endsley, Bolté and Jones (2003) design opportunities and rational have to support such reapplication. Grandin (2005) states her main insight behind the squeeze machine design, was the observation that some cattle became placid while pressure was applied on their sides by the squeeze chute. She concluded that deep pressure provides a calming effect to most people, a prime example being a massage. At the time of Grandin’s discovery (1965), the potential for therapeutic deep pressure and autism was relatively unknown. Many autistic children found their own unique methods of creating deep pressure. For example Willey (1999), explains that in her childhood she loved the sensation of being underwater, as it ‘held’ her, and felt ‘strong’. Grandin’s personal understanding of deep pressure came from her own knowledge and experiences. She (Grandin, 1988) describes as a child crawling under sofa cushions, and having her sister sit on them to achieve deep pressure stimulation. While at the same time she disliked direct human contact such as hugs. The dislike for human contact is common in autism and the reasons are normally bespoke to the individual. Grandin (1984) describes a ‘fear of losing control’ or ‘being engulfed’. In the squeeze machine, the removal of human interaction provided a solution. Deep pressure sensations could be achieved enabling the individual to have complete control over the experience. As Grandin describes:

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


I control the amount of pressure by pushing an air valve lever that pulls the two panels tight against my body. I can precisely control how much pressure my body receives. Slowly increasing and decreasing it is the most relaxing. (Grandin, 2006:60) From her initial observation, Grandin (2005) decided she required a squeeze chute of her own. As a teenager she manufactured a human sized equivalent, using a pulley system and plywood boards. The movie biography, Temple Grandin (2010) replicates this first squeeze machine prototype:

Fig. 6

The squeeze machine has been developed from this initial design. The pneumatic system, as previously mentioned, enables an advanced degree of control. Grandin (2005) also describes adding soft padding to the side boards. This subsequently gave her, what she describes as “social feelings” when she used the machine. She relates these new found feelings of “kindness” and “gentleness” to a physical need for social warmth. Grandin compares her experience to an experiment conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow (1958). This showed that infant monkey’s would always choose a soft cloth fake mother over a hard wire one, even if only the wire mother supplied milk. Grandin suggests that the desire for ‘soft’ stimuli is driven by the need for physical warmth, and subsequently provides a social warmth, therefore explaining these new social feelings brought on by the squeeze machine.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


The squeeze machine is an example of design for self. In this scenario the designer is also the primary user, the skills to observe and deduce the needs of others are not applicable. Subsequently other individuals with autism could make use of the device, as a matter of coincident rather than design intention. A commercial version of the squeeze machine is now available for deep pressure therapy for people with autism. This design has been further developed around the original concept, although this design development is not directly the work of Grandin.

cattle as clients In contrast to the squeeze machine this section will attempt to view Grandin’s work from an intentional user centric perspective. Grandin’s design approach is renowned for revolutionising the nature of cattle handling systems in Northern America. The success of Grandin’s designs are their ability to encourage cattle to pass through facilities willingly without excessive use of cattle prods or other devices that cause pain and distress to the animals. This has subsequently increased the productivity of many facilities and over all profits. Grandin attributes her design success to her autism: A great deal of my success in working with animals comes from the simple fact that I see all kinds of connections between their behaviour and certain autistic behaviours. (Grandin, 2006:172) Grandin (2005) relates the perceptual differences of autism to that of prey animals, such as cows. The ability to focus on minuscule details, sometimes unavoidably, could be viewed as a survival instinct in prey animals, and could easily be compared to an autistic individual being constantly alert and wary of novel stimuli. This theory is under criticism in the scientific community (Plos Biology, 2008). Such criticisms claim her study relates only to domesticated animals, which would be under more stimulative stress than animals in the wild, nonetheless these claims do not directly effect her design work with domestic cattle. Grandin (2006) describes an incident at a feed yard where cattle refused to walk past a small white plastic bottle, due to the visual contrast between it and the ground. It was only when the bottle was covered by mud and took on the same colour as the rest of the ground, that the cattle proceeded to move. This highlights the detail sensitivity of the animals that needs to be taken into consideration during the design process. Grandin

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


(2005) describes crawling through cattle chutes with a camera, taking black and white photos. At the time it was believed that cattle saw in black and white, this is not true, cattle do see in a limited spectrum of colour. The black and white imagery showed sharp contrasts in colour where animals tended to balk. Grandin still uses this technique to identify factors that need to be addressed in individual cattle handling facilities. Another substantial factor in Grandin’s design work is her behavioural understanding of cattle. She describes (Grandin, 2006) having a love of animals from a young age, and with a formal education and a doctorate in animal science, this gives her a qualitative understanding of animal behaviours beyond perception and observation. One example is Grandin’s central track restraining system used in some abattoir production lines. She (Grandin, 2006) describes this, as a conveyor belt which the cattle straddle lengthwise. The major difference from other belt systems is that it supports the animal under the chest and belly. Grandin observed that the old V-restrainers squeezed the animals legs together, making them feel unstable. She (Grandin, 2006) notes that “animals don’t like to walk into a space where they feel like there isn’t enough space for their feet.” By making this minor behaviourally compatible adjustment cattle were more willing to mount the conveyor system, increasing overall productivity. All of the cattle chutes and walkways designed by Grandin are curved, she (Temple Grandin’s Youtube Channel, 2008) states this is another behavioural adjustment. According to Grandin curved chutes work as the cattle believe they are returning to where they came from. Cattle also have a natural circling behaviour, which can be seen in any documentary were a herd of buffalo are being approached by a pack of wolves. She also states that if the animal is unable to see people or other stimuli, which is common at the end of straight chutes, they are less likely to balk. Curved chutes are the most distinguishing feature of Grandin’s handling facility designs.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


Fig. 7

Grandin’s design work with cattle shows an ability to design for an outside user. Seemingly, her lack of understanding in relation to neurotypical people, lead her to the more unusual user group of cattle, whom she understands and is able to empathise with. She has an ability to define and understand the interactions between cows and people, cows and objects, cows and technology. Theoretically a complete user centric approach. The process she uses connects her detail orientated perspective to a user group, this sets her apart in her field and could suggest why she is one of the top professionals in cattle facility design.

design resolve Grandin (2005) describes her resolution to design problems as test running the equipment in her imagination. She states that due to her cognitive ability to think visually she can mentally envisage all the elements of a design, and through her knowledge of cattle, simulate how they would interact with it. Though in design terms this is a highly unorthodox method of prototyping. The nature of construction in the majority of Grandins design work, or the ability to withstand the impact of five hundred large animals, does not lend itself easily to a temporary sketch model; nor does the detailed nature of cow behaviour to computer simulation. However, there is no denying that Grandins mentally simulated designs have worked when implemented.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!



- autistic thinking vs. design thinking

The concept that autism effects creative ability has already been suggested. The very nature of being different from the majority of society could suggest coincidental original thinking. Asperger considers this: It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. For success, the necessary ingredient may be the ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways, with all the abilities canalised into the one speciality. (Asperger, 1979:49) This chapter will discuss and attempt to analyse the potential cross overs between the perceptual and cognitive processes of autism and design practice.

user centred autism Grandin’s corral designs have proven successful in practice, the evidence that they work, suggests a correct analysis and situation awareness of her user group. Empathy with cattle, as a user group, could prove challenging from the perspective of neurotypical designers. Grandin’s detail orientated perceptive abilities, combined with a behavioural understanding enable her to produce effective design solutions. Grandin’s claim relating to the visual cognitive processes of animals and autistic individuals, supports this proven ability to design for cattle. Detail orientation could also be a potential limitation in a user centred process. In Wittgenstein’s architectural work, the detail orientated clinical nature of the aesthetic could seem to reduce neurotypical appeal, especially when considered in a domestic setting. In certain scenarios a consideration of human emotion may be required to create a homelike comfort. A skill potentially made difficult by social impairment. Fitzgerald (2004) refers to the opinions of Wittgenstein’s other sister, Hermine. She states that though she would not choose to live in Haus Wittgenstein, it fitted their sister Gretl ‘like a glove’. From a user

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


centric perspective it could therefore be assumed that Wittgenstein’s design was in accordance with his sister’s individual criteria. Whether this is the result of deep consideration of his sister’s needs and wants, and not happy coincidence is unclear. However, it seems that Wittgenstein was primarily concerned with the application of his personal philosophy of logic, which in autistic terms could be considered as his specialist interest. Most examples of autistic creative work seem to link primarily to visceral elements. The work of Steven Wiltshire, orientated around architectural design, does not take into consideration any form of user and so instead is presented as art. While Wittgenstein focuses on clean aesthetic and spacial balance, rather than human occupants. This could be due to a lack of interest in people due to a reduced social understanding. Social impairment could potentially effect an autistic designer’s ability to design for the neurotypical majority of users. There may be possible solutions for this through a close iterative communication with an end user, working as part of a team or to a set criteria of social factors. Nevertheless, in some scenarios a degree of instinctual social awareness beyond a simplified set of criteria may be required. Grandin’s work suggests an ability to design primarily for what she understands, other autistic people and cattle. One final cognitive trait of autism could play a role in a user centric design process. The hypothesis of top down information (Ropar & Mitchell, 2002), could potentially suggest improved situational observation skills. As previously mentioned, Endsley, Bolté and Jones (2003) suggest end users communicate potentially erroneous representation of their needs. The removal of any prejudgemental bias presented by an end user could create a more accurate scenario awareness, and potentially a more effective design outcome.

detail orientation The suggestions of Weak Central Coherence Theory supports the presence of an autistic perceptual and cognitive detail acuity. The implications of detail orientation could attempt to explain topics such as: savant abilities, sensory sensitivity, Grandin’s perceptual understanding of cattle, Wittgenstein’s clinical methodology, and potentially a number of design skills.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


In relation to the concept of granular thinking, the detail perception and fragmentation abilities of a weak central coherence have possible application. Considering one of the prime applications of the granular concept could be service and system design, the systemising nature of autism described by Baron-Cohen (2004) could have consequential benefits. Considering the interference in global understanding (Mottron & Belleville, 1993) frequently present in autistic individuals a question is posed to the ability that individuals can understand the implications of a holistic service or system (including any potential social factors). This suggests that the systematic approach of the autistic mind may indeed be suited to the development of systematic aspects of a design process, though may require the input or management from some source of global understanding. Detail in the visceral level of cognition (Norman, 2004) could be considered essential. Seymour (2011) demonstrates this in his TED talk, by moving facial features of a model by millimetres to demonstrate how physical beauty can be susceptible to small changes. In this incremental procedure attention to detail has obvious advantages. Wittgenstein’s style though minimalist demonstrates an accuracy of placement and refinement that supports this concept of beauty. Wittgenstein showed his architectural meticulousness when he forced builders to remove the ceiling and then rebuild it three centimetres higher. Hermine recorded that this ‘educated instinct’ was correct, as the new ceiling created a more pleasing space (Fitzgerald, 2004). Aesthetic management is an essential ability in design of any kind. Product, graphic, typography, furniture and architectural design are just a few examples where detail in appearance could be desired in accompaniment to function. Other factors effect the perception of positive aesthetic, such as trends and contemporary fashion, may benefit from a designer’s global comprehension, as well as context applicable knowledge. The process of selective properties such as movement or materials, applicable in physical design practices could also be affected by an autistic detail perception. While many do not fully appreciate these qualities in day to day objects, such as the click of a turning dial or the ergonomic curve of a handle, designers invest a large amount of time into the way their designs look and feel. A possible comparison to this concept could be the analytical qualities in an autistic persons repetitive movement. This suggests repetitive movements, such as opening or closing a door continuously. Autistic individuals may be distinguishing minute differences in the action they are performing, hence repeating the

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


movement in an attempt to achieve in their opinion the ‘perfect’ action. A comparable process is usually implemented in the prototyping and testing phases of design outcomes. Danish information technology company, Specialisterne (The Specialists), solely employ consultants with Asperger’s Syndrome for testing procedures, due to these meticulous evaluation habits (Aftenposten, 2009).

function and meaning Both Grandin and Wittgenstein could represent Norman’s concept of behavioural design. Function to an extent defines their work. Grandin’s aims to meet the visceral criteria of cattle, therefore is detached from our own perception of desirable aesthetic. Grandin’s justification for the appearance of her design work relates directly to the cow’s perceptual behaviour, and could be defined as purely functional. Her understanding and experience of cattle and autism is accompanied by a severe impairment in human social understanding, making her unlikely to design for user groups other that autistic individuals and domestic animals. Wittgenstein’s style also seems to neglect human empathy in the creation of domestic comfort. This could be true of many modernist houses that share the aesthetic. It could be suggested that autistic individuals may be unsuited for behavioural design for neurotypical humans. Functional design in technology development or fields that do not require a direct anthropological understanding could be aided by the weak central coherence and systematic cognition. However, crossovers potentially exist in the criteria of autistic and neurotypical users. Autistic web designer, Jamie Knight, understands that autism leads him to personally different design criteria, that may not be applicable to everyone (Lion+, 2011). The simplified, ‘clutter-free’ interfaces Knight designs due to his own sensory sensitivity, are as accessible and easily used by none autistic users. He now specialises in web accessibility design. The presence of reflective consideration (Norman, 2004) is not apparent in Grandin’s work, nonetheless it could be considered as unnecessary. While Wittgenstein’s architectural work could easily be categorised as sharing modernist ideals. Wittgenstein’s conscious decision to adopt the principles of this minimalist movement could be reflective of the structuring attributes of autism. Wittgenstein’s personal philosophy of logic is reflected very strongly in his design work, concluding that his work does present a reflective level. None of the cognitive studies of autism presented suggest a possible

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


comparison that would aid reflective design. If reflective meaning is to be drawn from social ideals such as in Thwaites’s Toaster Project (2011), then an individual with autism may be at a disadvantage. Another potential disadvantage at the reflective level, could be an inability to generalise. Fragmental perception suggests the individual would be more likely to see something for what it is, rather than what it represents.

order out of chaos In accordance with Baron-Cohen’s theory on the desire for systemisation, a potential attraction of design could be the desire to create structure in what is perceived from an autistic perspective to be a chaotic world. Willey states her sentiment towards architecture: In many ways it is the perfect elixir for whatever ails me. When I feel tangled and tense, I get out my history of architecture and design books and set my eyes on the kinds of spaces and arenas that make sense to me; the linear, the straight lined and the level buildings that paint pictures of strong balance. (Willey, 1999:48) This statement seems to refer to classical architecture, where strong geometric shapes and structure are dominant. Attwood (2007) anecdotally recalls an encounter with Willey in which she explained that buildings which were asymmetrical or “jagged” in their design, made her feel anxious and even nauseous. This severe dislike for visually unstable architecture, could support Baron-Cohen’s theory of autistic systematic structure in everyday life.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


conclusion The evidence reviewed suggests that perceptual and cognitive attributes of autism offer a potential benefit to the work of a designer. Detail orientation and fragmental perception have a wider potential reach of applications outside the field of design. Attention to detail in particular could explain autistic success in different fields, including engineering and mathematics. Detail orientation could also be relevant in aesthetic management during a design process. A set criteria of factors may need to be established in regards to certain contemporary aesthetic expectations, to avoid simple geometrical and balanced forms. Detail orientation and a desire for systemisation, could be utilised in under lying aspects of design projects, such as technology development and system elements. However, potential difficulties have also become apparent. An impairment in social understanding, could possibly reduce the value of a design outcome in regards to reflective meaning and social expectation. This could also result in neglect towards the ‘human’ elements of design, such as comfort. Again a potential solution could be to establish a set of rules to govern social aspects of a project, despite this it seems unlikely the complexities of social protocols will be fully comprehended. Another potential shortcoming of autism could be in a lack of global coherence, in scenarios where a designer must balance many elements of a project a fragmentised perception could be limiting. A hypothetical autistic designer as part of a team including neurotypical designers, could potentially be an effective method of designing positive solutions. Therefore, balancing the fragmental and detail abilities of autism with the social and global understanding of neurotypical designers. The need for rules and instruction implies that educational support may be required for a hypothetical autistic designer to fulfil their true potential. As with savantism, innate talent needs to be combined with formal practice to achieve continually successful outcomes. As people with autism adopt specialist interests in a wide selection of fields, potentially individuals coincidently fall into the field of design. Baron-Cohen’s theory on the need for systemisation, combined with Willey’s testimony on her love for architecture, suggest that elements of design practice could directly attract an autistic person to the field. Grandin describes her design work spawning from a love of animals, an interest that corresponded

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


to needs in the cattle industry. Grandin’s work was initiated by design opportunity rather than an inherent desire to be a designer. As autism is a spectrum condition, there is the potential for a cross over of the attributes discussed. Happé & Frith (2009) state, “there is a general agreement that savant skills can be found in people who are not autistic.” If these skills are due to a form of autistic cognition, in theory there is potential for an individual with innate attention to detail, fragmental ability, a specialist interest in design, with a global coherence and no social impairment. This could manifest in an individual design genius, or potentially already exist in the people who currently work in contemporary design industries. Regardless, we can presume the unique abilities of the autistic mind, in design or elsewhere, can positively serve humanity in the future.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


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Only Human: Make Me Normal, 2005. TV, Channel 4 UK, 2005. (Channel 4, 02.06.05) Osteen, M. (2007) Autism and Representation: A Comprehensive Introduction, New York: Routledge. Plaisted, K., O’Riordan, M. & Baron-Cohen, S. (1998a) Enhanced discrimination of novel, highly similar stimuli by adults with autism during perceptual learning task. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 39(5), 765-775. Plaisted, K., O’Riordan, M. & Baron-Cohen, S. (1998b) Enhanced visual search for a conjunctive target in autism: a research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 39(5), 777-783. Plaisted, K. C. (2001) Reduced generalisation in autism: an alternative to weak central coherence. The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Rajendran, G. & Mitchell, P. (2007) Cognitive theories of autism, Amsterdam: Elsevier Inc. Ralph, P. & Wand, Y. (2009). ‘A proposal for a formal definition of the design concept.’ Design Requirements Workshop, 103-136. Ropar, D. & Mitchell, P. (2002) Shape consistency in autism: role of prior knowledge and perspective cues. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43:5, 647-653. Simons, D. J. & Chabris, C. F. (1999) Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattention blindness for dynamic events, London: Pion Publishing. Slack, L. (2006) Essential Design Handbooks: What is Product Design?, Hove: Rotovision SA. Stone, F. (2004) Autism: The Eighth Colour of the Rainbow: Learn to Speak Autistic, London: PA Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Temple Grandin, 2010. TV Film. HBO Films & Ruby Films, 2010. Directed by Mick Jackson. USA.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


Thwaites, T. (2011) The Toaster Project, New York: Princeton Architectural Press. Treffet, D. A. (1989) Extraordinary People: understanding savant syndrome, New York: Ballantine Books. Waugh, A. (2010) The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Willey, L. H. (1999) Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


list of websites Guidance Site Blog. Why are puzzle pieces used to raise autism awareness? (original post 18.04.07). URL: (16.12.11) Aftenposten. News Website. The Specialists (original post 29.05.09). URL: http:// (27.12.11) BBC News Health. News Website. New brain scan to diagnose autism (original post 10.08.10). URL: (05.09.11) Fast Company. Business Blog. URL: mutual-attraction/granular-thinking-not-crime (08.09.08) Left Brain Right Brain. Autism News Forum. URL: cognitiveperceptual-difference-and-good-web-design/ (02.12.10) Lion+. (Jamie Knight) Web Accessibility Design Website. URL: (29.12.11) Plos Biology: Peer reviewed open access journal website. URL: http:// (23.11.11) Sitepoint. Publisher Website (Pervasive Usability - Planning for an Uncertain Future). URL: (10.01.03) Stephen Wiltshire. Artist’s Official Website. URL: (09.11.11) TED. Lecture Broadcasting Website (Paul Bennett finds design in the details). URL: http:// (16.11.11) TED. Lecture Broadcasting Website (Richard Seymour: How beauty feels). URL: http:// (15.11.11)

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


TED. Lecture Broadcasting Website (Temple Grandin: The world needs all kind of minds). URL: grandin_the_world_needs_all_kinds_of_ minds.html (04.04.11) TED. Lecture Broadcasting Website (Thomas Thwaites: How I built a Toaster from Scratch). URL: scratch.html (13.12.11) Temple Grandin - Youtube Channel. Cattle Handling Principles to Reduce Stress Video, 2008. URL: (12.12.11) The Daily Beast. Selective News Website. Kids with Autism Love This Software (original post 15.01.09). URL: (16.12.11) Wisconsin Medical Society. Society Website. Gilles Trehin - The City of Urville. URL: http:// (16.12.11)

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


appendix rajendran interview transcript Interviewee: Dr. Gnanathusharan Rajendran, Senior Lecturer of Psychology, at the University of Strathclyde. Specialist in cognitive, social and communicative development and developmental disorders such as autism. Date: 25.10.11 Location: Graham Hill Building, the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow Conducted by: Luke A. McKinney

McKinney: As I am a Designer. I have a fair concept of autism. However I am a bit behind on general terminology. Rajendran: Do you want to tell me a little bit about your project, background and sort of fill me in how I can help in this respect. McKinney: I am in my final year, this is my dissertation, a piece of academic writing discussing the topic of autism in the context of creative thinking and particularly design. This at the moment focuses quite a lot on the work of Temple Grandin and of her design work in animal handling and views on how her perceptual and cognitive differences effect how she perceives the world and how that relates to her design work. Also looking at behavioural and social differences, I am unsure of how strong a connection they have with design and the idea of design for society rather than design of objects for pure function. That would be a brief overview. Rajendran: So forgive my ignorance here, are you designing for people with autism, is this what you want to discuss, or are you using it as more a sort of, if you like, if you have individuals who perceptually view the world qualitatively differently from other people how would that influence your view. Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


McKinney: Yes. Rajendran: Various things here, I have sent you my review paper I am sorry it is quite dense. McKinney: I just about got through the weak central coherence. Rajendran: That is probably most interesting for you. McKinney: It relates to quite a bit to stuff that I have been reading regarding the concept of granular thinking, especially the perception of the local versus the global. Rajendran: Basically that is one of the things you might be able to pick up on. The other one is Savant Syndrome. You have sort of mentioned, and that is particular to autism I think people with autism are ten times more likely than any other developmental disorder to have a particular island of ability and this can include things like someone might be able to know particular information like dates and calendrical calculations, for example I know one young man, in fact quite a few people, with this disability you give them your birth date and they can tell you were born on a Sunday. This kind of ability can include mathematics. I don’t want to call it mathematics/calendrical abilities, memories, but also issues to do with art. Stephen Wiltshire, you might have heard of an architect, a famous savant. It affects music, so this kind of links. Is there a connection between Savant Syndrome and Autism? Well there seems to be. This autistic spectrum, you have these individuals who have Savant Syndrome, mostly seem to be autistic as well. So you have these islands of ability, they have extremes of ability, including art and sometimes music and other things. But more generally within the autistic population there seems to be either this issue of focus on local versus global processing, which means attention to detail. Other people like Laurent Mottron, he is focused on enhanced perceptual processing, so he is not really specifying his theory as much as some of his friends and colleagues but say the weak central coherence theory has been criticised for not being very specific. Like what is local, what is global? But in a sense it is a useful theory. It gives us at least some groundwork so that might be useful to you, all that sort of work. So the question is if you have enhanced perceptual processing how do you, or how does that manifest itself? Well Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


one of the ways is that stimuli that you and I might find non aversive might become aversive. So for example, loud noises these are things you probably know anyway, tactile, and across all the senses the ones that have really been focused on tend to be the most obvious ones like vision and auditory processing but also issues like tactile processing. There are people who, I have forgotten his name, however he is from Cardiff University Psychology. Looking at perceptual processes in tactile. I think David McGonigle, he is a tactile person. So in terms of smell, I don’t know of any work done, I believe it gets very complicated but I’m not a perceptual psychologist. I don’t know enough about that, but the main focus has been on vision and on hearing and David is looking at touch the other senses; taste and smell are harder to work out but if you want to stretch your discussion around the senses that would be an interesting way of discussing/focusing it. So you have this issue of enhanced perceptual processing which potentially has its downsides as well as upsides, because if you are processing things around you what you might not have is a filter which may make things overwhelming. So sometimes individuals with autism find ways around that especially the more able ones. When you are younger you may not be able to. So one young man I used to know he refused to have showers, he refused to get into the shower, his parents would be very upset they obviously wanted him to be clean, but later on in life when he was able to he described it as having sensations of, like needles going through his hands, he wasn’t being belligerent, he had this overwhelming sensation of pain that you and I would not have. The other thing you might want to focus on, I mentioned this in my review, is a paper by Ropar and Mitchell, and this focuses on something very interesting, this is about top down information. So the way typical minds seem to work is that, I am not just talking about perceptual processing but more generally, if I give you a piece of information, and I bias you in someway, about some aspect of it, that is going to affect how you process it. For example, if I give you a photograph of two different people and somehow I let slip that one of the photographs is of someone who is particularly intelligent. If I then give you a piece of work to mark by those people your tendency would be biased towards giving the person who I said was more intelligent a higher mark. So that is generally your expectations influence outcomes in psychology more generally. What is interesting in autism is that this seems to affect the perceptual processing, so in the Ropar and Mitchell experiment they had individuals with and without autism look at a Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


box. Inside this box they created a slit and if you imagine inside this box if you open it up there is a circle but if you look through the slit it appears like an ellipse. What they asked people to do was on a separate computer screen if you imagine a laptop and it had an ellipse and you could move the ellipse up and down you could adjust it using the arrow keys so it appeared fatter or thinner and they said simply adjust this so that it is the same size as the ellipse you see through the slot. Now one of the conditions the participants walk in and they see the box is open and they see in fact the ellipse is a circle and they close the box and then you can see the ellipse. In another condition it is closed when they come in so they don’t see that it is a circle, and what you find is that typical developing people, because they know it is a circle, that when they go to adjust they make the ellipse fatter more circular because they are influenced by their prior knowledge. Whereas the individuals with autism are influenced, but by a lesser degree. So that it seems that the prior bias in terms of visual perception is not so strong which I think is quite incredible, really it is, a small effect but it shows you first of all how biased typically developed individuals are in terms of their prior knowledge on such a basic level and yet individuals with autism are not so biased. McKinney: I was reading up about the concept of the fragmentation of information the example used was perspective drawing suggesting that certain autistic savant’s ability to draw perspective, which is quite a difficult artistic talent. That neurotypically we perceive a generalised image of a building, while an autistic person perceives individual segments of the building, and when put together equals a more accurate building. Rajendran: Quite a long leap as far as I know. There are only a few individuals including Stephen Wiltshire when you get into specialist cases. When you get into perspective taking I think you are getting into another realm which we really don’t know about. For example, if you look at the Müller-Lyer illusion, the one with arrows, which looks like the corner of a room. I think there are cultural differences, for example people who live not in this culture in an area where you might have huts are not exposed to this type of building, so the issue of perspective becomes very much based on your prior experiences. So I think there are other things going on not as simple as to say that if you have autism you would be any better at perspective taking than anyone else. Certainly if you are talking about perspective taking in terms of mental rotation, I guess the jury is still out about this, and some evidence suggests that there is some egocentrism. Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


This is another potential trait whereby you see things from your own perspective to the detriment another perspective. For example, if I have an object in front of me and you can rotate it in space and I ask you to make select photographs from your visual perspective, typically developing people after a certain age are better able to view it from multiple perspectives. I don’t know where that current research is there is mixed evidence to suggest in terms of mental rotation whether people with autism have any problems or not. So when you are talking about perspectives in social cognition, looking at other peoples minds, so there is a difference between taking a physical perspective and one in terms of feelings. The evidence for that is much stronger that they have issues with that. So perhaps that is not so useful for your purposes but may help you look through the literature. McKinney: Yes, sourcing autism literature in an art school library has not proven fruitful. I was reading Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference, and his hypothesis of the extreme male brain. I was quite interested in this proposed potential for autism to exist, to an extent, in everyone, would you have a personal opinion on this? Rajendran: My personal opinion is, I believe there is an element of truth in this because autism is a spectrum disorder. So it does shade into normality. And there are issues around at what point you get a clinical threshold, if you like. So this is an issue for all abnormal psychology. It’s not like you have a broken leg and you defiantly know you have a broken leg. It’s at what point does this become a problem for you. If you have a broken leg it is a problem for you the moment you break it, but if you have a developmental disorder. Baron-Cohen uses autistic spectrum conditions, so not so much a disorder as a different way of viewing things, which there are arguments for and against. In terms of his extreme male brain hypothesis of autism. There are other people who believe that there are gender differences, and it is true to say for most development disorders, including autism, you are at much greater risk if you are a male. It goes for Tourette's Syndrome, it goes for ADHD, it goes for pretty much all of them. Why this is the case nobody really knows. Baron-Cohen relates this to hormones and fetal testosterone, you might read that in his book. He suggests a link between the amount of testosterone you are exposed to in the womb and the amount of autistic traits you show. Other people, like David Skews, believe it’s to do with chromosomes. So males have an X and a Y, while females have an X and an X. I won’t bore you with the long and the short of it, but essentially if your social

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


cognition is based on your X chromosome, girls have two so they have some protection. Guys only have one, so if there is a problem in that then you don’t have a duplicate to help you. So other people have alternative views to why males are at greater risk. Personally, I think Baron-Cohen’s argument for the extreme male brain is a little bit weak. Partly because I’d expect there to be an extreme female brain and what that would mean. I don’t believe he is talking about the brain, I believe he is talking about the mind. I slightly loose use of terminology I think, it should be the extreme mind but I think brain seems a bit more focused. There are some gender differences but it would not be the line I would view. I guess it is interesting, but Baron-Cohen is the only person who pursues that line of research in the terms of the extreme male brain. There are not people around the world doing research based on that. However suggesting that there are evident traits in the typical population, then I believe that makes perfect sense. McKinney: Just in regards to the brain and the mind, a BBC article suggested a brain scan was close to identifying physical traits of autism… Rajendran: No. McKinney: Blunt. Rajendran: Basically no. A lot of people make strong claims, and these claims in the paper have been variously attacked because they are being overly strong. If you put people in various brain scanners and say which is the autistic brain and which is the not autistic brain, I think it would be very to do. I think people are looking for the biological basis of this, but I don’t believe it is as simple as purely looking at it. I am a cognitive psychologist, so I suppose I would say that. But you need to look beyond and look at the mind, emotions and other things like that before you can say it is a truly brain based difference. We don’t really know how the brain works in order to come up with these conclusions. So I have a pretty strong opinion, I think no. McKinney: So is the identification of autism behavioral based? Rajendran: Entirely behavioral based. There was a recent paper published on the genetics of autism. I haven’t read it in it’s entirety but it suggest that there are numerous genes that are involved, and that nobody really knows the process from genes to brain structure and then to behaviour, there’s lot of conceptual leaps. And even if you have single gene Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


disorders, like Fragile X Syndrome or Rett Syndrome, you have enormous variability in that group of people. So one of the interesting things in autism and all other developmental disorders, even those with very specific genetic basis, is that you do get a variability. So how can it be the case that you have one gene thats effected, yet you have such a variety of people. So it suggests that theres lots of interactions going on between the genes, the environments and lots of things we haven’t really been able to model. McKinney: You mentioned a link between savantism and mathematics. These link strongly to an identifiable structure. However is there an identified link between autism and creative abilities? Rajendran: Creativity and that, I don’t really know. I think Uta Frith, in her book, had a section on creativity which might be useful to you. She is the proponent of Weak Central Coherence Theory which is a nice place to start from. I think there is a section on creativity, she talks about Sherlock Holmes. There is also a paper by Frith and Francesca Happé around creativity and thats in a publication called Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society. You should be able to find it, I think it’s the world’s oldest peer reviewed journal. There is a whole section of articles based on this meeting, it would be a very good resource for you. McKinney: I have been looking at some of Grandin’s work and her concept of autistic visual thinking. Do you have any experience with the theory of visual thinking? Rajendran: No, I’m not really sure what that would mean. Certainly not in my research I have not come across that. That might be very specific to her. McKinney: She relates to it quite a lot when talking about the perceptive qualities of animals. She talks about it a lot in Animals in Translation. Rajendran: Yes, I have seen her work and the kind of humane way of dealing with animals and thing like that. That’s her job isn’t it, animal husbandry and how to work with animals in a better way. My personal research isn’t really based on those kinds of things. The difficulty is knowing if somebody says I have specific insight how do you actually get in their mind to, whether thats the case or not. It is very subjective, the objective ways are to run these kind of experiments to see how people get on.

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


I am trying to think what else might be useful to you. Yes so, enhanced perceptual processing, weak central coherence, top down, savant syndrome. I think those are the main things you can focus on that might influence. McKinney: One last thing, I got scolded by a psychology student for using the term ‘autistic’. Is there any other taboos in regards to terminology that I should be aware of? Rajendran: That’s an interesting point here. I generally use ‘people with autism’ but I’m so use to it, because it is politically correct. But recently I have seen quite a view people with autism themselves and others using the term autistic. There is a person called Morton Gernsbacher, a very famous physco-linguist, she also has a child who has autism and she uses autistic. And always when she uses this she has this link to a blog, ‘see Sinclair to appreciate our respectful use of the term autistic, rather than person with autism.’ I will send you this. I think you can argue quite happily that you can use ‘autistic’ as well. I certainly use autistic in my work, more stylistically to stop using person with autism, person with autism, person with autism. It’s not meant to be used a derogatory term. Especially after reading Gernsbacher, I thought if somebody who is as prominent as her can use that and it’s published, then I don’t see any problem with it. I’ll send you some of these. McKinney: That’s everything. Thanks very much. Rajendran: Your welcome. You seem to know quite a bit. McKinney: Well, for a designer...

Autism and Design - Luke A. McKinney - 2012 - The Glasgow School of Art!


Autism & Design  

This Bachelor of Design dissertation investigates the possibility that particular impairments of autism could enhance an individuals creativ...

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