The process of involving children with autism in the design of a museum-based app

Dimitra Magkafa, University of West of England, UK, Nigel Newbutt, University of the West of England, UK


Museums are considered active institutions that facilitate the possibility of self- directed learning and exploration. Decades have passed since the implementation of the Disability Act (1995), and we have seen the incorporation of inclusive practices in museums for a diverse range of people including people with autism. In support of this endeavor, this paper seeks to present a process of designing a museum-based application tailored to autistic children’s needs. By adopting a Participatory Design approach, the paper attempts to capture the preferences of a case study group in co-designing an app for a Bristol-based museum. Initial findings emphasize the significance of adopting a participatory methodology in enabling users to provide feedback whilst collaborating among stakeholders. These were found to be key factors in the development of the platform. This paper will also consider the challenges that emerged from the participants' involvement, and how these influenced the design process.

Keywords: autism, museums, design process, participatory design

1. Introduction

 The rise in prevalence of autistic conditions has led museums to better consider accessible spaces and programs tailored to autistic preferences (Golden and Walsh, 2013). Over the last eight years, mobile applications have been attracting growing interest from museums (Proctor, 2011). By taking advantage of the digital features, applications seem to be promising and powerful tools in museums for broadening their audience and creating immersive experiences (Proctor, 2011). Although there is a growing interest in the design of museum applications, the development of a museum-based application for people with autism has yet to be addressed. Meanwhile, there is a strong evidence base that emphasizes the value of touchscreen devices in aiding the children with autism and their well-being, helping to improve a range of skills and opportunities (Kagohara et al., 2013). Developing accessible digital products is thus of much wider significance, and in the case of children with autism, design access becomes an issue. Given that the heterogeneity of the spectrum is a barrier, researchers in this field need to consider ways of minimizing the challenges and designing more inclusive programs aligned to these needs.

These challenges led us to ask the following questions:

  • How can we design for such diversity?
  • How can we verify that a museum application meets the user’s needs and capture the user’s interest?

This paper goes a step further and delineates the design process of a museum- based application from scratch. The aim of this platform is to provide the opportunity for an enriching experience within the walls of a museum by enhancing autistic people’s social skills and enabling learning within the museum setting. In order to do this, the current study draws upon research in the area of design principles and considers the concept of the Participatory Design (PD) approach to help identify the needs of the users.

This paper is organized in the following way: section two gives an overview of the background of related areas; section three describes in detail the steps followed in the development of the application; section 4 includes a discussion of the overall process by reflecting the key concepts; and finally, section five concludes by giving a brief summary of the theoretical and empirical findings identified in this research.

2. Related work

2.1 Autism and the potential of assistive technologies for children with autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a pervasive neuro developmental disability that causes significant impairments in three core areas: a) social interaction; b) communication; and c) imagination-flexibility. Children with autism also show sensory sensitivities and repetitive- stereotyped patterns (APA, 2016). Autism is a broad spectrum, and is characterized by different degrees of severity, ranging from mild to severe impairments in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior (APA, 2016). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016), the current prevalence rate in the United States of America is about one in 56 children, whilst the United Kingdom is 1 in 100 children (Department of Health, 2012).

Over the last two decades, assistive technologies have been a major area of interest, and their potential to help people with autism enhance their quality of life is still being examined (Kagohara et al., 2013). A wide range of technology platforms has been developed such as computer desktops, video-modeling, virtual reality, applications for mobile or touchscreen devices, and robots (Grynszpan et al., 2014). As reported by authors in this field, such technologies tend to be effective for autistic persons to improve language deficiency (Ploog et al.,  2013), empower cognitive development (Lamm et al., 2014), enhance their adaptive functioning (Pugliese et al., 2015), or help with social skills and communication development (Newbutt et al., 2016). Research has tended to find that individuals with autism are considered visual learners, and show a strong affinity for and pay particular attention to visual processing and computer-based tasks (Parsons and Cobb, 2011). Such programs seem to be efficacious, as they include audio and visual features, and help the autistic users to be in a controllable and predictable environment (Fletcher-Watson, 2014).

2.2 The power of Participatory Design (PD)

 As previously mentioned, individuals with autism show distinctive challenges in areas such as processing information, perception, and problem-solving. Given such diversity, all these challenges can impact how and whether autistic users can use an interface successfully. As such, due consideration should be given to interface design for these groups. One efficient way to confront these issues is by applying an approach known as Participatory Design (PD).

PD is derived from the Human Interaction Design (HCI) and considers the significance of the active involvement of end-users in the technology development process (Benton & Johnson, 2015). It also entails the strong collaboration between the intended users and the designer team by identifying their needs and strengths with the purpose of building interfaces that fit the special needs of users. In some cases, other stakeholders such as teachers or parents can share their thoughts and experiences. Based upon Druin’s (2002) proposal, children’s involvement in technology research can have multiple levels of participation as a user, tester, informant, and design partner. In line with this, the children’s contribution depends on the activities, and can be from minimum (passive roles as users) to being equal design partners (active participants given the possibility to be more creative (Benton et al., 2014). There is evidence that more and more researchers recognize the importance of the PD approach for marginalized user groups, such as people with autism. Particularly, the PD approach focuses on giving the participants the sense of empowerment within the design of digital products (Frauenberger et al., 2013). Several projects have employed different techniques and strategies in this area, ensuring effective participant interaction and partnership at different stages of the design procedure (Benton et al., 2014; Frauenberger et al., 2013).

2.3 Inclusive strategies for people with autism in museums

It is commonly believed that recreational activities such as a museum visits can be a stressful and challenging experience for people with sensory sensitivities (like many other activities). To address these issues, over the past eight years, several museums worldwide have created partnerships with local organizations such as the National Autistic Society (in the UK) and Autism Speaks (in USA) as a strategy for helping to increase accessibility and provide inclusive practices to accommodate autistic groups’ needs. This endeavor to raise awareness and understanding of autism was the first step toward targeting a group who was considered marginalized in the museum environment (Deng, 2015).

As such, museums have modified their services and offered sensory-based activities in small groups, mostly for children on the spectrum. They scheduled their programs at quiet times (before opening times) to eliminate distractions and help the autistic groups adjust more easily to the new environment. Improvements have also been considered in physical access, such as light level, simple signage, and lower sounds (National Autistic Society, 2016). Further, by developing accessible pre-visit resources (Web-based) (Langa et al., 2013), children with autism and their families can access information and prepare themselves in advance (see All these approaches highlight the ongoing endeavor to help support people with special needs by making welcoming environments and offering autism-friendly activities. To date, few studies have examined the effectiveness of the current museum services and provisions helping to support autistic visitors. Findings have identified that museum activities contributed to facilitating a more tangible experience for children with autism and their families. Through play-based learning activities, the children showed an active involvement (Mulligan et al., 2013) whilst others seemed to enjoy their visit using interactive exhibits (Baldino, 2012). Studies have also reported on parents’ willingness to experience different environments, such as museums (Lussenhop et al., 2016).

Despite the integration of special programs, in reality, the progress has been slow, and the accessibility of museum provisions for people with intellectual disabilities remains a challenging issue. Primary factors that can deter parents of autistic children from visiting a museum include a) unwelcoming environments with loud and crowded spaces, and b) the lack of staff knowledge and training about the difficulties autistic people experience in public spaces (Lam et al., 2010; Kulik & Fletcher, 2016).

2.4 The potential of touchscreen devices in museums

 The rapid growth of applications has attracted museums as a powerful platform to reach a diversity of audience, and to foster new forms of exploration and interaction with the artifacts (Fisher and Moses, 2013). Due to the wide range of capabilities of today’s mobile devices, museums have changed the way their collections are exhibited. By and large, these platforms offer several affordances that make them quite popular. Such devices have great potential to successfully operate as a learning medium with flexible information (Economou and Meintani, 2011). Moreover, they give the sense of freedom to the visitor, to structure their visit at their own pace and in their own way (Filippini-Fantoni et al., 2011). Likewise, museums take advantage of the audio and visual features of those devices and create opportunities for active participation and entertainment.

3. Development process

3.1 Project description

The present study is still in its progression phase, as it is part of a PhD project. The main purpose of the project is to examine the effectiveness of a museum-based application used by autistic children, in order to promote learning in a unique setting (like a museum), and improve social skills. Part of the purpose is to develop and design an application for touchscreen devices that takes autistic users’ abilities into consideration. Due to the lack of published research in the area of design access, the project drew upon recent research in the field of design guiding principles, whilst a PD approach was applied, to determine preferences of the case study group. This, in turn, helped to identify some practical and successful design guidelines.

3.2 Procedure

The current study was conducted in collaboration with a special needs school and the M Shed Museum in Bristol, United Kingdom. Prior to the implementation of the project, the first step was that the researcher become acquainted with the potential participants. The main purpose was to capture the children in their daily environment and to interact with them in a classroom setting (ICT class) throughout the project. This provided some important insights into how the children behave in a classroom context, and how to use and interact with computer programs. As this project concerns a vulnerable group under 18 years of age, written consent was obtained from the participants’ parents/guardians.

The design process, communicated in Figure 1, included four essential stages: 1) discovery of context as well as understanding user needs; 2) ideate; development of the plot through prototypes; 3) user-testing; evaluation of the first version of the application; and 4) re-design. Based on the four phases, the process of its implementation is analyszd in the following subsections.

The stages of development process (museum-based application).
Figure 1: the stages of the development process


3.2.1 Discovery: Co-design sessions and PD approach

Numerous studies cite the gap in defining the design guidelines needed for autistic users (Davis et al., 2010), an aspect that seems to be important in order to develop an accessible program. Similarly, there is lack of published research in the area of user testing regarding working with people with autism. Thus, the present study attempted to explore some practical elements, in addition to testing and verifying the usability of the platform. A Participatory Design approach was selected as an ideal way to actively involving users in the design process; the emphasis was to give the users a voice, and to elicit responses from their own viewpoints in terms of the functionality and accessibility of the app. The intended users participated at various stages of the product development, as described below.

During the co-design sessions, the principal researcher and the school staff (a lead teacher and teaching assistant) were present. The lead teacher had the role of the facilitator, and contributed to minimizing any distraction from the participants and intervening effectively whenever necessary. In each session, the researcher was informing the children about the designed project scope and the aim of each session. The introductory task was executed to clarify any misunderstandings, as well as to draw attention to their role in the design of the app. The purpose was twofold: a) to motivate the participants to express their ideas, and b) to find out their preferences about specific features of the application. The sessions were arranged to be carried out in the participants’ classroom during the ICT class. The co-design activities were divided into four sessions and two groups of autistic children (on average 12) were assigned to take part in the sessions. The groups were named Green and Blue class. There was variation in the participants’ cognitive level and language difficulty, but all of them were on the autism spectrum. In order to explore the perceptions of the users, a combination of different methods was chosen for the co-design sessions such as PowerPoint slides, drawings, and low-tech prototypes (see Figures 2, 3). Those methods helped the researcher to identify their preferences in terms of accessibility, communication-collaboration and representation features, as well the integration of game elements.


Classroom- Based co-design sessions: drawings, low-tech prototypes.
Figure 2: classroom co-design sessions (drawings)                             Figure 3: classroom co-design sessions (low-tech prototypes)










During the sessions, both classes got involved and were keen to respond to the questions and provide their own thoughts. However, in some cases, participants had some difficulties in understanding the nature of the question, and needed assistance, which was provided by the school staff. Throughout the sessions, the teachers pointed out how important their input and contributions were for the development of the app. The participants gave their own ideas for different features of the application, whereas in some cases they suggested alternative ideas. The findings obtained from all of the co-design sessions are presented in Table 1 below.


Table 1: presents the responses from the groups of children with autism

Features of the application

Green Class

Blue Class

of categories



of Rewards

Sound & Images

Sound & Images

of Images for Rewards




Customizing Colour

Customizing Colour

Action Button

Menu Action at the top

Menu Action at the bottom

of Questions

Text & Sound

Text & Sound

of Font








Audio Clip & Text



Images, Videos &Animations

off the Sound




With picture

With audio clip and


Lenny Face

Smiley Face

of iPad









3.2.2 Ideate: concept development

The research team collaborated with third-year undergraduate students based at the same university in Bristol to develop and design the museum application. The M Shed Museum was where the case study took place. This contains artifacts from different periods in time representing the city of Bristol’s past throughout the centuries. In particular, some of the museum’s collections include Bristol at War (World War II), Bristol’s involvement with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and exhibits navigating some of the most important inventions in and from the city. In consultation with the outreach officer of the museum, we included areas that are considered significant parts of the local history and that are most fitting and engaging for transferring the proposed plot. The app was also designed so that users can work individually—but only through collaboration can they manage to solve the last challenge. However, the participants’ difficulties in language played an important role in developing a very simple and precise content tailored to their needs.

Due to the broad range of users (in this case study), the plot of the app was structured based on the diverse needs of the children. Existing design guidelines and the results from the co-design sessions were also considered in building the scenario and the framework of the app. Through repeated iteration sessions, the content was changed under the direction and suggestion of school staff. Considering all these contexts, we eventually were able to reach an agreement and we decided to create a scavenger hunt plot game that enables the users to discover different points of the city. Other ideas for the type of the game included a role-playing game such as a group of tourists, detectives, or journalists. However, given that children with autism have difficulties in adapting to different situations, role-playing could have been problematic. In the context of this study, the scavenger hunt was chosen as an effective approach to enhance the museum learning experience and to develop an interest for the target group. In addition, the teachers agreed that this type of game was most suitable for the case study group.

The plot was structured as the following: An alien has a mission to explore the Earth, starting his adventure in Bristol. The users in collaboration with the alien are challenged to discover a certain number of key points of local history by completing a mission in each of these points. At the beginning, a map of the museum’s layout will appear to direct the users to the key points that the users should visit. Each time they complete one task-visit, a puzzle piece will be given. When they successfully collect all of the pieces, the players should meet at the area where an important artifact of the city is exhibited. At this stage, they are asked to solve the final challenge and discover the word hidden behind the letters.

Once the plot and the context of the application were found, the next stage was to sketch out how the application will look. One way to do this was through prototyping. Paper-based and digital prototypes helped us to design the functional requirements of the platform such as buttons, navigation, and accessibility (Figure 4, 5). Those prototypes enabled us to see outside of the box as to whether the present scenario and design could be accessed by the autistic group. Furthermore, the flowchart of the application was a particularly essential part as we mapped out the sequence of steps that the users require to perform (Figure 6). Figure 7 shows a screenshot of the main menu of the What’s Bristol application.



Paper-Based prototype of the application's plot and functionality features.
Figure 4: paper-based prototype of the application


















Digital prototype version of the application.
Figure 5: digital prototype of the application











Part of the flowchart of the museum- application.
Figure 6: part of the flowchart of the museum-application















Main menu of the app with all of the spots
Figure 7: screen shot from the What’s Bristol application.


3.2.3 User testing process

 The aim of this phase was to obtain a detailed assessment of the platform and to highlight whether the product could be accessible by the target group. After the prototyping session, a user testing (UT) was arranged, and a different class with autistic children from the same school was randomly assigned to test a short version of the platform’s interface and verify its usability.

All the participants were equipped with touchscreen devices (with the application installed) and were requested to interact with the app. During the session, the research team observed and took notes of the children’s comments while verbal prompts were required. The children and the school staff were asked to give oral and written feedback regarding the proposed prototype. The overall response was positive, and they found the application easily usable, and the plot comprehensible. The evaluation of the platform provided us with greater insights in terms of its usability that helped the team to modify the interface quality. Based on the feedback obtained from the questionnaire, appropriate changes have been carried out and bugs were fixed for the final version of the platform.


4. Discussion

 4.1 Insights from Participatory Design sessions

The present project sought to investigate a) how to co-design a museum application for autistic users (in this case study) and b) how to confirm that the application meets the user’s needs and capture the user’s interest. The iterative process of the project contained different sources of evidence, such as reviewing existing literature in this area for the design of technology programs, as well the knowledge of other experts.

The concept of end user’s involvement in the development of a digital product is an approach that seemed to offer a number of benefits for the researchers and participants respectively. Defining and understanding autistic users’ needs, we can gain important insights into how to best support this target group and to scaffold a meaningful and enjoyable digital experience. In this case, the results of the co-design sessions were an effective source of knowledge to understand children’s needs and further support the idea of the importance of a PD approach for this target group. By integrating a variety of techniques in this study, the potential users were able to express themselves and were all engaged by asking questions related to the design of the app.

In the case of neurodiverse difficulties, creativity is viewed as a powerful means of structuring effective sessions (Makhaeva et al., 2016). In addition, the sense of freedom to sketch out their own app (through low-tech prototypes and drawings) was used to trigger their own creativity, and led them to providing their own ideas regarding the content of the plot, and suggestions about short and long-term goals. By applying this methodology, our understanding widened regarding what the users want to see and how they want to do it, thus developing an optimal program that doesn’t exceed their capabilities. However, the reported evidence in this paper offers some different and interesting findings between the two groups. In addition, some of the findings reported in this paper differ from existing studies in this field, such as findings related to the interface, rewards, and sharing the device. Although there are some guiding and basic recommendations for guiding the development of technological programs for autistic users, it can thus be suggested that there is no set formula for ensuring that these guidelines can be successfully followed. This might be explained because of the heterogeneity of the spectrum and the variation of difficulties. Given this complexity, our approach took into consideration the characteristics and the preferences of the target users.

Alongside, the user testing session was an additional advantage of verifying how usable or not the product was for them. Although the users were able to navigate and perform the tasks correctly, the children’s input and feedback helped the research team to improve part of the app by adding new features or simplifying parts of the game.


 4.2 The essential role of teachers

Overall, the design procedure highlighted how important the contribution of other stakeholders such as teachers (among others) was. During the co-design and user testing sessions, teachers helped the children move along on to the next task and provided assistance when required. The presence of school staff was also conducive to maintaining the children’s attention and in some cases to explain further elements of the app that proved difficult for the children to engage with. This further helped the children feel more confident to generate and develop their ideas, and give some suggestions concerning what else they wanted to see in the app.

Over the course of the project, the research team was in constant consultation with the teachers, and their suggestions and comments were valuable to help us modify specific parts of the app:

  • simplify the content by using text appropriate to children’s ability;
  • help identify any challenges that might emerge regarding the design features, such as the use of digital symbols (as navigational directions) that help the users to find their way moving from one spot to another;
  • create tasks to fit the children’s broad range of abilities.


 4.3 Iterative process

For the present project, it was necessary to include an iterative process in the development stages. The iteration was meant to pinpoint the weaknesses of the platform, and then implement improvements throughout the phases. The establishment of partnerships among stakeholders was the vehicle to identify whether the application is accessible to and usable by children with autism. In addition, the iterative design sessions conducted with the teachers from the special needs school and experts in the area of autism played a significant role in producing the application and ensuring proper usability of the platform.



This paper is a part of a PhD project, and introduced the process of creating a museum-based application for a group of autistic users. The main aim of this research was to extend our knowledge of how we can design an inclusive digital platform in the museum setting for this target group. In doing this, the development process of a museum-based application divided into four stages has been described. The present project has deployed inclusive children-centered practices and highlighted the need to elicit knowledge of children’s needs and interests. Due to the lack of knowledge concerning design guidelines, the sessions’ emphases was on determining features that could be helpful for the children in navigating the app. Preliminary results of the co-design and user testing sessions have shown positive reactions from the children, and helped us to capture design elements needed in the app. The present study recognizes the significance of the varying degrees of autistic children’s involvement, the role of teachers, and the establishment of partnerships with different organizations throughout the process. It should be noted that this study was conducted with a relatively small sample of participants, and further research is needed to better understand what the users require when using a digital platform, and how we can design successful programs aligned to their needs.


This research is funded by the Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education at UWE Bristol. We would like to thank all the BA students who took part in the design of the application, the participating children, the teachers, school, and the museum staff.


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Cite as:
Magkafa, Dimitra and Newbutt, Nigel. "The process of involving children with autism in the design of a museum-based app." MW18: MW 2018. Published January 19, 2018. Consulted .