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AcrossRCA Cross-disciplinary Project 2014

Celebrating Neurodiversity

27- 31 October 2014 

Part of AcrossRCA interdisciplinary collaboration week at the RCA

Senior Research Associate Katie Gaudion from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design ran a week-long cross-disciplinary project with students from across the Royal College of ArtThe workshop was entitled ‘Celebrating Neurodiversity’.

There is a great deal of 'differences' among human brains and human minds, this is called neurodiversity. Autistic adults, who are often excluded from design research, were central to this workshop. Autistic adults are people whose sensory perceptual experience of their surroundings is unique, but also they are people who may not be able to communicate those differences verbally.

The workshop invited autistic people across the spectrum to share their life experiences with a group of RCA students. The students were encouraged to reflect and challenge their own neurotypical assumptions and ways of experiencing and perceiving the world and to explore how different ways of seeing, doing, and behaving can inspire their creative practice. The students, working in teams explored how, by being creative and using making and spatial and visual thinking skills, new modes of non-verbal communication and dialogue and understanding about themselves can be developed.

The students took part in a range of games and exercises to help them explore their own sensory perceptual experiences and cognitive profiles. 

Speakers were invited to explore and discuss the topic of sensation and perception in relation to autism and create a holistic picture for the students of the lived experience of autistic adults:

  • Katie Gaudion presented her design work and empathic design approaches using sensory props and the What Do You Like? Kingwood Sensory Preference cards.
  • Lizzie Raby, took the students on a gustatory journey involving ice cream to explore an autistic person’s hyper and/or hypo sensitivities.
  • Works by Rebecca Lyddon were presented to create better awareness and understanding of the autistic sensory world.
  • Jon Adams, an artist and geologist by training who has Asperger’s Syndrome, talked about his synesthetic experiences through the medium of his art which combines installations, illustration, film and sculpture.
  • Andrew Brand, talked about ‘Squease’, an inflatable pressure vest designed for people who have difficulties processing sensory information, such as people with autism, ADHD, sleeping or anxiety disorders.
  • Robyn Steward, who has a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and is an artist and author of The Independent Woman’s Handbook to Super-safe Living on the Autistic Spectrum, gave a lively and informative presentation through the act of singing, music and painting. The presentation exampled some of the challenges she has experienced being female and autistic.
  • Ben Connors, an artist/illustrator and campaigner gave a very thought-provoking presentation about his PA work with a young autistic man, which he documented through drawing.
  • Monica Cornforth, spoke about her experiences raising her autistic son and some of the challenges and joys she had experienced along the way.
  • Lucy Skuce, who is autistic and a talented filmmaker, presented to the group. She gave a presentation about her interests, films and everyday experiences and played her film: People and Power.
Outings during the week included a visit to The Hub Day Centre where the group met Ian Wilson, Art Co-ordinator at the Hoffman Foundation. He has over 23 years experience working with autistic adults on arts and crafts activities, such as drawing, textiles and furniture making. Ian showed the students some of the artworks his clients had created, which illustrated different visual perceptual styles. Ian also facilitated some perceptual exercises for the students. 

The students also visited The Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at the Institute of Education, where they had the opportunity to meet researchers working in the field of autism from a social science background.

Towards the end of the week the students, split into three groups, were asked to explore and prototype ideas and work through an accelerated creative process to arrive at three ideas to share and present to the expert panel. The brief encouraged the students to explore and reflect what they had experienced during the week. Each team was given the sensory profiles of four autistic adults (using the What Do You Like? Kingwood Sensory Preference Cards) and were asked to make a gift for a person based on their sensory likes and dislikes.

The student’s presented their projects to the panel and an audience from the RCA. The results were a very thoughtful collection of works including: a pink tactile flipbook for Lucy; a range of badges with different labels and a tactile communication toolkit. 


Group One:

  • Laura Venables, RCA Textiles
  • SooJin Hong, RCA Painting
  • Carrie Dickens, RCA Jewellery and Metalwork

Group One's individual creative responses to the workshop included a range of interactive, sensory cubes aimed at a designer's personal sensory experience and responses. Inspired by keywords and the sensitivity towards language, a member of this group created a collection of laser cut badges. Together, the group made an interactive library of tactile, audible and scented cards with textured with encapsulated items, that designers can keep around as for reference and inspiration, or, they could be used by an autistic individual to explore their sensory preferences with others.

Group Two:

  • Monika Bansal, RCA Visual Communication
  • Ayesha Saeed, RCA Photography
  • Hannah Robson, RCA Textiles

Individual responses from this group included: a range of badges based on conversations with Jon Adams; an enquiry into the theme of repetition and an artwork (embroidery) based on the phrase: ‘When you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism’ omitting the words ‘with autism’ in the embroidery. Based on the sensory preferences of ‘Lucy’ the group created a sculptural pink tactile flipbook.

Group Three:

  • Seth Pimlott, RCA Sculpture
  • Jude Crilly, RCA Sculpture
  • Jessica Lyons, RCA Architecture

A member from this group showed a music video and discussed his concept for a music video with an autistic individual with who he has some contact with. This generated a discussion around ethical and Intellectual Property implications when working with autistic people. Based on the sensory preferences of ‘Tony’ the group created a textured dance mat that interacted with a musical device. 


See projects with the Kingwood Trust:

"Thanks for organising such an amazing week. It was thoughtful, challenging, honest, a bit raw, and very human." RCA student

"The week was really inspirational and I am loving exploring the new ideas and sensory concepts." RCA student

"It was a fascinating week and so much has stayed in my mind since. Great job bringing together so many interesting people and ideas."  RCA student