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Blue Sky

autism travel companion

Masters of Science Thesis Project

Project Overview

Skills Developed:

  • Design Research

  • Insight Generation

  • Ethnographic Synthesis

  • Prototype Testing

  • Lo-Fi Prototyping

  • Storytelling

  • Mobile App Design

  • Desktop App Design

  • Presentation skills

Airline travel can be difficult for some children with autism and their families. For my thesis project, I wanted to design a service that could make airline travel a more accessible option for these families.

During this project, I did continuous research with 22 parents of children with autism, 6 airline professionals, and over 100 professional autism advocates and therapists to inspire design iterations.

The result is a pre-travel prep kit paired with a day-of travel first aid kid to help support both the parents and the children.

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Design Research

I conducted phone interviews with 7 parents of children with autism to better understand what the journey of traveling (or avoiding travel) was like for them. 

Many families who have traveled have only done so in moments of desperation (ex: for a family funeral). Many families don't feel like traveling is an attainable goal for them.

A few families have found ways to be very successful traveling, and it has gotten easier for them over time.

Main Insights from research

Each child with autism is different, and parents know their child the best. Additionally, parents are highly motivated to make sure the job is done correctly. They will feel in control of the situation, inspiring confidence.

Airlines have policies in place to empower customer facing roles to care for the customer. However, the complicated network and third party contracts in place make it difficult to execute a new service on every flight, or at every airport.

From interviewing clinical experts in the field, preparation is the most effective technique to make flying accessible for children with autism. Preparing gets at the core of the problem, and will reduce the need for reactive care during travel, reducing overal stress.

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Blue SKy 

The Blue Sky Travel Companion includes a prep kit to help get the family ready for a trip, and a sensory comfort kit to use during travel as needed

Service journey

Parents can order their box online after deciding to travel

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30 days before travel, parents will receive their Blue Sky box in the mail

Parents can use their Blue Sky prep kit to get ready for the flight

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On the day of travel, parents can use their Blue Sky comfort kit to react to any unknown stressors. 

Design Artifacts

Online Ordering

Fear leading up to the trip was a main pain point for parents. Being able to personalize this service helps to inspire confidence for their upcoming trip. 

To personalize, parents will select the age of their child, main interests, and sensory needs. From these answers, the prep app and comfort kits will update to maximize engagement for the child.

Online ordering experience for parents to personalize the kit for their child.

Prep kit

The prep kit has the best chance of making an impact on the travel experience for children with autism. 

In the kit, parents will have the tools needed to practice air travel experiences with their child at home, such as going through TSA, wearing a seatbelt and sitting still, and learning visual and auditory clues to help make airline travel more familiar for the child before flying. This opportunity to practice establishing routines is critical for many children with autism.

parent pamphlet

The parent pamphlet orients the parent on how to best use the prep kit and comfort kit. 

The parent pamphlet includes instructions on how to download the Blue Sky prep app onto their child's iPad, and steps through how to practice establishing routines at home.

It also includes tips and tricks from other parents who have been successful traveling on what has worked well for them. 

The parent pamphlet is designed to provide a calming confidence to worried parents.

Prep App

The app is guided by a familiar character to the child. In this example, the parent indicated that the child was interested in birds, so a bird is guiding the child through the app.

The child will start by clicking on a module to learn more about that part of air travel.

Once in a module, a first-person video will play with a voice over explaining what is happening. 

In the lower right corner, the child can see what triggers they may experience during that part of the journey to prepare. In this example, there may be loud noises, bright lights, and waiting in line.

During the module, the video will pause and allow the child to interact with the environment to learn more. 

Here, there is an indicator to click on the jet bridge controls to learn about what they are and how they work.

After it finishes, the module will resume.

At the end of a module, the child will be prompted to drag the events in the order that they will happen, in order to encourage information retention and engagement.

When the child finishes the module, the parent will get a notification that it is time to practice their new skills in person. 

The parent will now use the prep kit and routine cue cards to practice this module at home.

Comfort kit

The comfort kit is designed to offer in-the-moment relief if something unexpected happens to help calm down the child.

Because each child is different, the parent will have an opportunity to customize this kit when ordering it with things their child will like.

In this example, the kit includes several sensory toys, earmuffs to dilute loud noises, and a velcro event strip to see what event is coming up next.

Blue Sky comfort kit

BAckground Work

Research Artifacts

Journey maps to direct problem solving

Feedback generation tools for parents and clinicians

Branding direction "this or that" activity

Unboxing experience favorites and least favorites activity

Future Directions

virtual reality preparation

Many children with autism have experienced positive benefits from using virtual reality headsets to more closely simulate real world experiences in the preparation phase. 

Virtual reality will not be accessible for every child with autism due to the nature of having a physical object on their head, but it is promising for children who are able to tolerate the headset.

sensory friendly seat cover

Children who experience great physical discomfort from the airplane seat could benefit from a sensory friendly seat cover.

The seat cover will need to be compact and easy to pack/carry through the airport, easy for the parent to put on and take off, and follow FAA guidelines as to not interfere with safety requirements.