Autism: Designing for the Spectrum
As the mother of my now grown son, Stephen, who is on the spectrum, and as an architect with a passion for the relationship between space and behavior, I’ve accumulated many personal observations. Today there is a wealth of research on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) available to parents and educators; when Stephen was young, there was little information and no internet. We would educate ourselves by regularly visiting specialists and reading books, but mostly we would observe, adjust to accommodate, and observe some more. Stephen was 17 years old before we had a diagnosis. He was smart, gregarious and a voracious reader, but it was clear he was on a unique path and our job was to nurture his path and environment for his personal development.
Early in my career I developed an interest in designing spaces for learning and facilitated many conversations with college students. A student focus group was my first time to observe a young adult with the sensory and social responses I recognized in my young son. The interaction with the group, the response to the ‘ideal study places,’ the comfort of their personal space, specifically their acoustic tolerances, drew a direct parallel. Their stories held an amazing likeness to our experience and validated the adjustments and accommodations we were learning as a family.
Through my experiences, I learned sensory responses can be extreme for the individual with ASD and range from absence to zero-tolerance, which makes spatial characteristics take on a heightened importance to properly support individuals with sensory disorders.
According to the CDC, the prevalence of ASD in children nearly tripled between 2000 and 2016. There is a growing great need to understand how to create supportive environments because our ability to connect with school, friends, family, our world, our life experiences and memories is facilitated through our sensory response to each.
Designing spaces for individuals with autism can vary as widely as the range in the vast spectrum of individual sensory needs. The needs can surface in one or all of an individual’s senses—and to different degrees within each sense. The needs will change over time from childhood through adulthood. In a home setting, the physical space may incrementally change with the natural growth and evolving needs of the child. In a public or institutional setting, serving more than one individual, designing for the extreme condition will typically serve the full spectrum of sensitivities.
I’ve distilled my key observations and lessons learned into three design principles: comfort, inclusivity, and flexibility. When partnered with appropriate response needs to one’s unique senses (see, hear, touch, taste, smell) these principles can enrich the lives of many. At its core, ASD responsive design follows good design principles, it creates healthy environments that promote well-being for all, inclusive of those with special needs.
Comfort is the top priority when creating autistic friendly environments.
- Create spaces that increase the probability of a comfortable sensory environment for unique needs and promote a sense of wellbeing for all occupants.
- Create spaces that adapt to the change in comfort day and night, in particular changes in lighting and glare.
- Consider all the senses in the development of the comfortable spaces.
- When serving a larger or transient group, such as a school or a clinical setting, provide a diversity of sensory environments through comfortable circulation and transition zones populated with a variety of specific sensory responsive micro-environments.
- Select furnishings to be an intentional component of the design, they play a significant role in personal comfort. Select fabrics and finishes that are comfortable to human touch, not textured, and easily cleaned.
- Create a safe environment. Design to minimize sharp edges and corners on furniture and counters. Avoid level changes within the space and horizontal elements that can be climbed (for example balcony and stair railings, etc.) Autistic children typically have ‘less fear’ and will frequently climb and jump off of just about anything.
The goal is not to force interaction but to make inclusion so natural, it is comfortable for the individual and invites the option for interaction by observation or varying degrees of participation. Social engagement varies with each individual’s innate behavior, age and position on the spectrum. Social engagement for young children is typically more important to the parent, as it is natural for parents to want their children to make friends; however, the child has likely not recognized his or her uniqueness. Older children are more complex. An older child or adolescent has recognized but doesn’t fully comprehend ‘the gap’ in their social readiness.
Create spaces that increase the probability of natural inclusion and engagement at a level comfortable to the individual need in personal spaces. Provide a range of comfort options in more public setting.
- Design features that encourage engagement including visible connections through transparency, physically open space and circulation space that allows the ability to observe an activity before entering the space.
- It is important (particularly with adolescents and teenagers) to allow the ‘choice’ to join. Design spaces that allow an individual to comfortably engage on the perimeter, get comfortable with the activity and make a decision about ‘joining.’ In a home setting this could be a small adjoining space to the kitchen or family room. In an institutional setting this might be a hallway, a ‘nook’ or pocket of space or special furnishings within a larger environment.
The ability to modify the sensory environment is paramount to supporting individuals with sensory disorders. No two individuals will have identical needs and an individual’s needs can change throughout the day due to change in physical context.
- Create simple spaces with features that allow the spaces to adapt and change to meet specific needs. This includes the ability to control light levels, thermal comfort, acoustics and furnishings.
- Select furnishings that are easily moveable and can redefine the space to separate, congregate or make more functional for the needs of the users. Note that flexibility in this context references incremental adjustment.
- Take care when adapting a space to ensure the change isn’t so great that it creates stress and discomfort. Typically, autistic children are stressed with major changes in environments in which they are already comfortable.
- Pending the function of the spaces, consider the role of technology and its ability to help shape the options within a space. This can include a range of control from a simple TV / digital screen, interactive technology, white noise or other forms of sensory comfort or interaction.
The most effective way to design space for sensory disorders is to consider the individual’s innate sensory responses and create features that provide the appropriate level of comfort, inclusiveness and flexibility to meet their unique sensory needs.
Observations and interactions with my son, a grandson, and many college students have helped educate me as a mother and designer by elevating my sensitivities to understand theirs. I believe that our ability to facilitate comfort is less about ‘clinical’ and more about positive interaction and good design.