Multidisciplinary Effort Aims to Create ‘Neurodiverse Furniture’ for Specialty Care Pavilion

It’s never too early to brainstorm ways to ‘improve lives’ for Jefferson students and patients.

While most students and faculty members spent their summer breaks away from campus, a quartet of industrial-design undergrads toiled in a Hayward Hall basement studio with an eye toward a future of neurodiverse inclusion.

Collaborating with Dr. Wendy Ross’s team at the Center for Autism & Neurodiversity and others, they aimed to conceptualize, research and fabricate a chair that could offer comfort for neurodiverse and other anxious patients inside what will be Jefferson’s state-of-the-art Specialty Care Pavilion at 1101 Chestnut St. which, at $768 million, represents Jefferson’s largest capital project in its nearly 200-year history.

Under the guidance of adjunct professor Robert Melville, the students—Isaac Savinese, Rachael Hannah, Nick Galie and Elijah Jones—spent seven weeks embedded within what’s been termed the “neurodiverse furniture” project.

Their work stands as a testament to Jefferson’s signature Nexus Learning approach—which combines engaged, active learning with multidisciplinary collaboration to solve real-world problems—and illustrates Jefferson’s “we improve lives” mission in the form of launching a multi-year effort to do just that for this vulnerable and under-represented population.

Hayward’s Design Technology Lab is an unassuming room with conceptual sketches covering its sterile white walls throughout the summer. There, Melville created a workplace-like environment for the project, which was different than regular coursework.

“We really wanted the students to think about this in a professional way. This was a very challenging and interesting project for everybody involved,” says Melville, who came to the University with a background in furniture design steeped in the experience of heading a business in London. “The task was the explore how seating in a lobby or waiting area may help the neurodivergent have a more relaxed visit to the doctor.”

Neurodiverse furntiture
The team worked toward fabricating a chair that could offer comfort for neurodiverse and other anxious patients inside what will be Jefferson’s state-of-the-art Specialty Care Pavilion. (Photos by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services)

To that end, the team took field trips to local design shops and met with people on the spectrum to help guide their ideation process. They went into the effort knowing that the underrepresentation of neurodiverse people extends into areas that can be, in some ways, mitigated by design efforts, including furniture, lighting and artwork.

“This is a growing demographic, that at present is not being catered to in healthcare furniture design,” says Melville, noting that the effort emanated from a discussion he had with Dr. Ross.

The goal of the effort—which could ultimately become a special-topics course melding design expertise with medical research—was to develop a prototype chair for testing with end users and, ideally, partner with an outside vendor for production.

“We really had to look into the issues and triggers that might make someone uncomfortable. How do we shield them acoustically from sounds and visually from the more chaotic parts of the space?” Melville says. “We thought about the comfort of how they experience texture, and access to distractions, like personal technology. These are the some of the issues that the students worked on during this project.”

Neurodiverse furniture
Robert Melville, an adjunct professor within the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce, oversaw the project in East Falls.

Those lines of thinking meshed well with Dr. Ross’s philosophies.

In her previous work adjacent to this space—collaborating with several of Philadelphia’s professional sports franchises to provide areas for the neurodiverse to find solace—Dr. Ross notes that they gave a feeling of isolation, stigmatization and “other-ing.”

“We want to bring people out of the room and into the world,” Dr. Ross says. “Separate sensory rooms are not a bad idea, but they became the only idea.”

To the entire team, it all centers on inclusion.

“This has always been a part of our vision at Jefferson: We want to create options for participation. When we think about what it takes to belong, we think about how our environment fits with the individual,” Dr. Ross continues. “When we program for the most vulnerable of us, everybody benefits. Everybody deserves a chance to belong.”

Neurodiverse furniture
The ultimate goal was creating a chair that was design-inclusive for everyone so as not to separate the neurodiverse from the general population.

Jones, now a sophomore, says the experience helped him better understand what his autistic cousin goes through on a daily basis. For his part, Galie says the experience offered a unique chance to create something tangible, which is what drew him to the University in the first place.

“When I looked at Jefferson’s industrial design major, it was fascinating and interesting because it’s a lot more ‘hands-on work,’” says Galie, now a junior. “With that, you get to build products for users who can benefit from them.”

The summer project was designed to create just one example of a possible chair, but the effort could blossom into some 100 throughout the Specialty Care Pavilion. That focus groups have already tested the chairs and offered direct feedback will only help as the project moves forward. Says Dr. Ross, they will be involved every step of the way.

Neurodiverse furniture
The team of industrial-design students spent seven weeks this summer working in a Hayward Hall studio.

When we think of people with disabilities, we think of the American with Disabilities Act, which mandates certain alterations of public spaces to accommodate those with physical disabilities. The ADA, however, falls short in addressing alteration of public spaces to accommodate those with ‘invisible’ disabilities like those with autism or other neurodiverse conditions.

“There is a larger percentage of the population that could need this type of furniture,” Melville says. “There are a lot of stressful things going on related to health care, and a retreat-able area to use could certainly help anybody who wants a quieter space.”

Savinese, a senior, points out that a selling point to get involved was having a positive impact on others’ lives.

“We came to realize through our research that a lot of the properties of the seating we designed are not only helpful to people in the neurodiverse community, but to anyone who might be undergoing stress,” he says. “It’s something that everybody can use, enjoy and not feel ‘othered’ while using.”

Neurodiverse furniture
Work will continue on the project in advance of the Specialty Care Pavilion's anticipated 2026 opening.

That meshes with what Hannah—a fellow senior—learned throughout the process. An arts-driven student who grew up in Seattle, she feels as if the team is already making a difference. She’s also involved in projects surrounding lighting and art for the Specialty Care Pavilion.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to come from an art background but explore different avenues of addressing these problems. It’s very exciting,” says Hannah, who took on a leadership role within the team. “I would love to have helped create a more inclusive environment at the end of this. Everybody can benefit from this. We’re all very connected, and this embraces the fact that we all have shared experiences and might need privacy or comfort in a specific area.”

While this was merely the start of a multi-year effort, its results—after ample testing by the neurodiverse—were presented in late July to a team comprised of project managers, architects, faculty members and others with a stake in the Specialty Care Pavilion.

“The spirit of Nexus Learning is one of inclusion, of minds with different perspectives coming together and sharing their insights and knowledge to create a new paradigm of what’s possible not just for them as students and professionals, but for those they serve,” Dr. Ross says. “Everyone matters, everyone belongs and everyone deserves a seat at the table. We’re designing that seat now.”

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