“I realised how little I knew and how interesting autistic people are,” says Gaudutė Žilytė, a researcher and product and furniture designer, and head of the Ecological Design Association. She explores the topic of human neurodiversity and develops tools to help different neurotypes communicate with each other. Her educational work KUKUBU, a space for social interaction between people of different neurotypes, was presented at the Stockholm Furniture Fair this year, and in 2019 her furniture collection Lula was one of the winners at the annual Young Designer Prize competition.
The KUKUBU project was born during an internship at the design studio INDI. Together with designer Simonas Tarvydas, Gaudutė made an educational toy called MOKU, designed to develop motor skills in children with developmental disabilities. During the toy’s development, the designers had to read a lot of literature, meet people with autistic children and participate in discussions. The designer decided to explore the everyday life and thinking of autistic people. She asked herself, what would the world be like if it was made only by autistic people?
How would the environment change and how would a neurotypical person feel?
If we look at an autistic person as the creator of an imaginary world, in many ways we would feel disabled and unable to fit in in such a world. KUKUBU is about the coexistence of different neurotypes, neurodiversity and the search for how to communicate without harming either side – remembering that a person’s disability or impairment and the “normality” we construct in the rest of the world can very quickly become meaningless.
Launch of inclusive education and employment policies
Discussions on neurodiversity, the development of cognitive and communication methods and the proposal of a favourable environment for autistic people in institutions are very relevant today. The state has launched an inclusive education and employment policy. The growing number of autistic children is calling for a rethinking of the environments and facilities created in institutions and at home, which will be used not only by neurotypical children.
Alongside the changing education system in Lithuania, it is important to provide special spaces for children’s sensory calming, stimulation, self-regulation and smooth communication. This is about building relationships with other children to ensure that all neurotypicals can live together in harmony.
When the research started, the designer had a conventional approach and wanted to help autistic children by creating educational tools and aids for parents and professionals. However, as the research progressed, she realised that rather than helping, trying to adapt and explore the intriguing world of an autistic person could be a much more meaningful path, opening up new routes less explored by other design researchers.
“I went to meetings after creating tools based on the communication model of an autistic person. I interviewed autistic adults, I observed children in ergotherapy sessions, I talked to professionals and parents. I tried to identify the main design criteria – guidelines to creating a world of objects that would be suitable for all neurotypical people,” the researcher says.
Safe space as a connection and communication aid
A study was also carried out in the virtual space Autcraft (a Minecraft game developed by autistic people). It showed very clearly how important it is for another neurotypical person to meet their neurotypical peers. Based on this research, a space called KUKUBU was created for them to communicate and relax together.
This space, unlike current sensory rooms or other educational solutions, is not designed to educate or simply provide sensory stimulation. The aim is for the space to be a connection and assistance to connect with the autistic child, while maintaining the privacy and safety they need, without the need for talking and eye contact.
The KUKUBU space uses light, abstract biomorphic shapes, the sound of crumbling sand, various wooden parts for drawing in the sand and massaging the hands, and lycra cloth – a fabric that hugs the body and allows for playing with the weight of the body. The whole playground is made up of cubes that are like separate houses for each child in the space – a safe zone for them to connect to another and creating enclosed structures for play.
According to the designer, “participating in the Vilnius Academy of Arts’ Entrepreneurship Programme was a very useful experience. Working together with specialists and consultants, I had the opportunity to learn how to put together a plan to start a business and prepare for a competition to get support for a start-up. I think I have gained a lot of new knowledge that will be very useful in the future development of both this and other future projects.”
Cooperation with counselling unit for children with developmental disabilities
The KUKUBU prototype is currently planned to be installed in the counselling unit for children with developmental disabilities in Vilnius. The research and development of the prototype will be continued there together with ergotherapists. Later, it is planned to apply for further funding to install the first KUKUBU spaces in Lithuanian schools.