Empowering young adults on the autistic spectrum: Reframing assistive technology through design

Increasingly, assistive technologies are designed
to ‘empower’ people with cognitive and social challenges. But what does it mean to say technology empowers? In a four-year participatory Research-through-Design project we addressed this question. Eleven autistic young adults participated in designing MyDayLight: an IoT system supporting self-management of domestic activities. Contextual inquiry, co-design, design reflection, prototype deployment and embodied interaction theory were woven together in an iterative reflective process. This allowed us to critically address certain background assumptions that typically underly common under- standing of assistive technologies. We present three reframings of our evolving concept of ‘empowering technology’: 1) From ‘planned reminder’ to ‘situated attention grabber’; 2) From ‘supporting action’ to ‘scaffolds for developing your own supportive routines’; 3) From ‘assistive product’, to ‘co-design tool in a larger transformational process’. In contrast to empowerment as ‘self-sufficiency’, MyDayLight embodies a developmental-experiential interpretation of empowerment. It helps users experiment with reconfiguring their own environment, reflect on their experiences and gradually develop more grip on life. The design artifacts enabled young adults on the spectrum and their care-givers to share, question, and reframe implicitly held understandings and to imagine and explore new ways for assistive technology to play an empowering role in a person’s life-world.