Designing the Space for Autism
According to the Center for Disease Control, one in sixty-eight American children are diagnosed with autism. Those with autism are highly sensitive to sight, sound, as well as touch and this can make it difficult for individuals on the spectrum to function within an enclosed space. Finding the right balance is key when designing an autistic friendly space, as autistic individuals can have a strong aversion to change. Having too flexible of an environment can invoke fear if the environment is always changing. It is important to know that when designing for autism, you must offer both flexibility and variety and be sensitive to sensation and stimulus.
Since autistic individuals perceive lighting, colors, and patterns differently, it is important to design a diverse space that allows for balance. Having a space that is not over-stimulating can help tremendously with their performance, success and overall comfort. April is Autism Awareness Month, and in recognition, we bring you some pointers on how to design a space with autism in mind.
1. Strike a balance between having large, open spaces and offering small, intimate spaces. By offering variety, you allow for flexibility and can more easily accommodate the needs and sensitivities of each autistic individual.
2. Autistic individuals are also sensitive to the feel of physical objects, and while this sensitivity varies from person to person, you can strike a happy medium by favoring the use of natural materials and textiles. Lean more towards the use of wood, rubber, wool, porcelain, and cork.
3. Keep in the mind the acoustics, as for many autistic individuals this can be distracting and overstimulating. The hum of fluorescent lighting, the sound of an air conditioning or heating unit, the sound of someone eating, footsteps, or even hearing multiple forms of sound at once can be maddening, distracting, and can even cause pain. Many autistic individuals suffer from headaches and can become agitated when they are inundated with multiple forms of sound.
4. Provide withdrawal, or isolation, spaces where one can go to “re-center” when they have become over-stimulated and overwhelmed. It is also important to design these rooms to be as soundproof as possible, so it can help eliminate any the ambient sound.
5. Many people advocate against the use of direct, poorly designed fluorescent lighting, as many autistic individuals are more vulnerable to the sub-visible flicker that can increase repetitive behavior and can cause eyestrain and headaches. In addition, the hum of fluorescent lighting can become distracting and agitating for those who fall on the spectrum.
6. Design the space so it can maximize the amount of daylight, while limiting distracting views and avoiding high contrast from the shadows and the sun. You want to allow in sunlight, but you want direct sunlight diffused so it doesn’t become too distracting or overwhelming.
7. A space that uses a mixture of artificial and natural light sources is best. Instead of big, ground-level windows that allow in sunlight, have windows that are high up, so they don’t offer distracting views of the outside. In addition, offer a diverse selection of dimmable lighting sources that range from overhead to side lighting. This can allow for easy adjustment in case an individual is reacting strongly against the current lighting.