Participatory design refers to any process in which the end users of a product or service are involved in its development, not merely as testers or by informing a user model, but as design participants. In this role, they make decisions about the nature of the product or service, and collaborate with designers so that the users' perspectives and preferences are incorporated into the outcome. Originating in Scandinavia in the 1970s, participatory design has a uniquely European heritage as a political movement for inclusion and democracy in design.
We believe that participatory design represents an exciting and effective way to ensure both the participation of people with autism and intellectual disabilities in society, and the effectiveness and availability of products, services, environments, and technologies for this population. Participatory design for people with autism and intellectual disabilities may therefore prove to be a key factor in ensuring the rights of people with disabilities and implementing the EU Disability Strategy.
However, participatory design with neurodiverse populations presents unique challenges. Imagine that your co-designers have social or communication difficulties. Or that they are completely non-verbal. Or perhaps they are not primarily focused on sight and sound, and so require multisensory stimulation and communication. These and other challenges must be met if we are to fully realise the participation of people with autism and intellectual disabilities in design, and, by extension, society.
A growing body of exciting research is addressing these challenges. However, neurodiversity in design is still in its infancy. It is far from mainstream practice, and an enormous range of outstanding issues – from the practical to the political – must urgently be addressed. To accelerate the state of the art in this field we have founded the Neurodiversity in Design European Working Group. Our overall aim is to build a rich and productive network of participatory design for neurodiversity research, and to expediate the translation and communication of this research to broader society, so that people with autism and intellectual disabilities can actively influence the design of the products and services they use.