I used to dread all of the “The Best of the Year Lists” but now I look forward to them – perhaps because they are so concise.

I thought that I would pass along my personal “Best of 2012 in Autism” list. These are the 6 ideas, people, initiatives and organizations that most inspired me this year.  Please note that they are posted one at a time and this is the fourth in the series.

#4 Design for America

It was an era of change.  We believed that there would be no more war; discrimination would end; all people regardless of race, gender and abilities were going to be treated equally AND fairly:  Design was going to save the world.  It was the 1970’s and I passionately believed that with hard work we could make it all happen.

This is why Design for America resonates so strongly with me.  I became a mentor for one of the teams at the Rhode Island School of Design/Brown Chapter after several wonderful conversations with Annie Wu, chapter coordinator. These students come from both Brown and RISD and approach the project with both interesting and strong academic backgrounds as well as personal experiences that draw them to the work.  The project is focused on Autism.

They are undergraduates with very heavy course workloads and yet find the time to energetically research the topic as well as connect and spend time with people and organizations in the Providence community. They then meet to generate ideas.  The project spans the entire academic year. The team leader is Rawan Al-Saffar, a RISD senior in architecture, who works well with her team of strong voices. In December, I saw their presentation: a visualization of all that they had learned and the resultant concepts.

The most pressing needs that they found are awareness, education and acceptance – but most of all empathy. Families are devastated by the lack of knowledge within the general public about what autism really is and what it means to children diagnosed on the spectrum.   There are so many stories of families of recently diagnosed children needing a crash course in autism.  Then they are faced with extended families, friends and people in their lives who haven’t learned about autism and many who don’t take the initiative to understand.

The team is in the process of looking at alternative ways of addressing these needs – this is the ideation phase.  The early ideas range from an interactive book and game, to a museum-like exhibit, to a van that becomes a rolling exhibit/library/source of information. When a concept is developed into a workable plan, they will then look for grant money as well as affiliates to carry the project on beyond spring 2013.  See the video link below; many projects are incubators for initiatives after the students graduate.

These students are amazing!  They are bright, incredibly energetic and also motivated and empathetic.  They’ll stay up all night to get it all done; drink coffee and do it all over again.  We are again seeing a wave of people wanting to make a real difference in the lives of others.  They are tomorrow’s social change leaders.  Design can save the world – one project at a time.

I am inspired!

Nancy Harrod





Team Members:

Kelly Hering, Samantha Demps, Andrew Beers. Annie Irwin, Kevin Wiesner, Allison Wong, Beth Soucy, Karan Chaitanya Mudgal, Tabitha Young, Rawan Al-Safar and Annie Wu.