Jonathan Hadlow

School of New Ideas

Thinking differently about autism

Joanne Chiu, Jonathan Hadlow, Yusuke Kanda
Royal College of Art - Service Design


The School of New Ideas is a personalised support service for young autistic individuals. It aims to equip individuals with the confidence to navigate the transitions into adulthood, build connections with peers, and aspire to live impactful lives in a diverse society. Our series of pathways centre around individuals' interests, whilst guiding them toward understanding themselves and setting future goals in a safe non-judgemental environment.


How might we support young autistic individuals develop the confidence to navigate through the transitions into adulthood, to build connections with peers in a safe environment, and to aspire to live purposeful, impactful lives.


Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition which affects how people communicate and experience the world. Autistic individuals with less support needs are grossly underserved by public and health care services due to perceived ableness. Our project aimed at understanding the needs of young autistic individuals as they transition into adulthood. Faced with choices and the challenge of forming their identity within social groups, young autistic individuals feel an increasing sense of otherness, anxiety and low self-esteem. Inconsistent accessibility to support means individuals are more likely to drop out of school and work as well as experiencing long-term mental health issues.


As service designers, we take a holistic, human-centred approach, including people with lived experience as well as those who live or work with autistic individuals. In our research, we connected with various support groups, collected 66 survey responses, and conducted 30+ interviews from various stakeholders across the service ecosystem, building an understanding of their needs. Synthesizing these insights we developed journey maps and user personas that informed our value proposition. 

Our initial Pecha Kucha, applying my experience using storytelling and metaphor.

Research Summary

  1. Individuals mask characteristics to ‘fit’ into environments designed for neurotypicals. This leads to increased anxiety which can result in meltdowns which can further result in dropping out of work or school.
  2. Clinical support sharply declines as individuals reach adulthood. Diagnosis can take an average of 3 years and the loose network of service providers means if individuals fall outside of an institution’s remit, any previous support becomes unavailable.
  3. Staying on top of vital administrative tasks is a big challenge for most of the autistic adults we spoke to. There is a struggle with controlling executive functions.


  1. Looking at individuals like Temple Grandin, Bill Gates and Sir Isaac Newton we see a pattern of individuals having intense interests and finding the right way in cultivating those interests. Interests can serve as a way of negotiating difficult relationships and engaging in skills outside of their previous areas of comfort.
  2. Having someone to encourage strengths and help navigate changes can be hugely beneficial for young adults. We see opportunities for a consistent support network of mentors that individuals can access at any point in their journey towards adulthood.
  3. The double-empathy theory has shown that autistic individuals build a greater sense of rapport amongst themselves, and communicate just as effectively as neurotypicals. There are opportunities to develop connections and experience sharing in a safe environment with like-minded peers.



Co-creative journey mapping workshop

We ran workshops to ideate and validate our prototypes as we progressed. 

The impact on design was an understanding of the need for a flexible and tailored support service that was accessible through an individual’s journey.

Our approach


We proposed a series of pathway programs designed to support individuals in tackling both internal and external pressures of becoming adults. This service would be offered to young autistic adults between 15-18 and 18-25. There is no requirement for a diagnosis and individuals can access the service at any point in their journey.

Service overview

Pathway structure and testing

The pathways offer both interactive group work and individual mentoring sessions. Our Autism passport sits alongside the pathways, enabling individuals to track their progress and share valuable information with friends, family and employers.

Autism passport prototype

Developed with participants and stakeholders

Life hacking workshop


Through this project we built real relationships with our stakeholders. We trialed the future pathways program and life hacking workshops with great success. Individuals, parents, health professionals and autism ambassadors spoke of the need for a service such as ours. Here is some of what they had to say.


For individuals we provide the autonomy and flexibility to curate their support needs. We empower and build confidence in individuals' unique skills and interests, while providing safe spaces to explore challenges.

Partnering organisations can pledge company staff to become mentors, joining the mentor network. This is both a space to share knowledge and inspire future generations and a place to better understand Autism. This understanding feeds back into their organisations, communities and families.

Reducing drop-out rates, burnouts and improving employment means less pressure on healthcare, social services and government budgets. Improved understanding and advocacy means less stigmatisation and social isolation.

Contribution / Key Learning