California State University, Long Beach
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For Her, The Work Is Personal

Published: August 7, 2017

Design’s Debra Satterfield examines the quality of life of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) by designing products, services and environments for them.

Her commitment is more than academic. Satterfield’s teenage son, John, has epilepsy and an autism spectrum disorder. He enjoys painting and saw one of his works win a prize at the Iowa State Fair.

“And none of the judges knew he was disabled,” she recalled. “It was eye-opening to me. I had never even thought to give him a chance. It made me wonder how many others like he is could benefit from having a creative outlet.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 live births is on the autism spectrum.

“As a designer, the question ‘How do I design better quality products, services and environments for those with ASD?’ is always in my mind,” she explained.

Satterfield, a member of the university since 2014, has researched and published extensively on design for social inclusion and design for behavioral change. The basic premise is her belief that disabilities “are a natural part of the human experience,” she said. “They are a natural part of the spectrum of what it means to be a person. To design for another person means the designer must understand that person implicitly.”

Her work in autism and cognitive disabilities helped her to develop a new course on the way to creating a master’s degree in user experience (UX) design, “Design for Inclusive UX.” This course features a project called “Play•IT.” The goal of this studio project is to design a play experience that enables a typical player to interact equally with a child on the autism spectrum.

As part of the Play•IT project, Satterfield began a collaboration with researchers at “The Innovation for Jobs Ecosystem” (i4J) and Chally Grundwag, lead researcher of the Coolabilities Project. Coolabilities is a term coined by Grundwag, David Nordfors and Nurit Yirimiya. Coolabilities seeks to discover useful and valuable abilities in people who are otherwise considered disabled. Through this collaboration, Satterfield and Grundwag combined Coolabilities concepts into the Play•IT design studio project. They also facilitated a series of interviews between CSULB design students and parents and children with ASD, designers and Coolabilities researchers in order to better inform the design of the Play•IT projects.

The inclusive UX course and the Play•IT project have helped change the way the design students think about persons with disabilities. In the past, when students were asked to create designs for those with disabilities, they gravitated immediately to the perceived inadequacies associated with the disability. After being introduced to Coolabilities’ concepts, students learned how to design for the strengths of each person they researched.

“They now realize that people with disabilities have a chronological age, a developmental age and an emotional age. They have things that bring them pleasure. They have things they find frustrating. It is all part of their personhood,” she said. “Through this course, students learn that every person they design for is worthy of a good design. Everyone in society regardless of their age or abilities deserves well-designed products and services even if they cannot advocate for themselves.”

Debra Satterfield (r) with her son John.

Satterfield earned her B.S. in computer science and graphic art from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and her MFA in graphic design from Iowa State University in Ames. Her work has reached across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom’s Leeds Metropolitan University where she will guest edit a special issue due in spring 2018 of the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction on the topic “Designing with and for Users on the Autism Spectrum.”

One product with potential is the fidget spinner, a toy that consists of a bearing in the center of a multi-lobed flat structure made from metal or plastic designed to spin along its axis with little effort.

“Fidget spinners are an interesting product that has broad appeal to a wide variety of people who receive a calming or focusing affect from the simple spinning toy,” said Satterfield. “The concept of self-soothing is common among neurologically typical (NT) people as well as those on the autism spectrum. For people who are NT, we often see self-soothing behaviors such as girls who quietly and repetitively twist strands of hair or boys at play who twirl a basketball on their fingers. For persons with ASD, this common behavior can be more pronounced. In that case, the self-stimulative behaviors are referred to as ‘stimming.’ An example of stimming for a kid with more severe ASD is the stereotypical hand flapping behavior or even self-injurious behaviors such as biting.

“Therefore, the simple fidget spinner is a good solution for a soothing toy for a moderate to high functioning person with ASD for the very simple reason that so many typical persons use it for the same sort of soothing activity that it looks completely socially acceptable,” she added. “It is highly doubtful that the fidget spinner has any potential for a therapeutic effect but the fact that it is accepted by peers, age-appropriate, and helps the person with ASD feel more calm and focused make it an interesting design for this purpose. And even better yet, it comes in great colors, lots of styles for men and women, and is widely available at a low cost, therefore making it a terrific design.”