Architecture Design for Autism

Can architecture be an intervention?

Architecture design for autism seeks to develop environments that accommodate the needs of autistic individuals. In spite of the prevalence of autism, there is currently no standards for an architectural design specific to the needs of autistic people.

What Is Architecture Design for Autism?

When people think of treatments for autistic disorders, they may envision behavioral interventions, biomedical treatments, and play therapies. Rarely do they think about building structures that accommodate the needs of people on the spectrum. Architecture design for autism addresses sensory needs as it develops an environment that is sensitive to the symptoms of pervasive developmental disorders.

Developing standard guidelines for creating autistic-friendly environments rely greatly on research. The dynamic between an autistic person's behavior and the physical environment is a primary concern. Architectural guidelines and codes specific to pervasive developmental disorders include:

  • Acoustics: A person with autism may be far more sensitive to resonating sounds that typical people don't notice.
  • Visual character: Visually confusing architecture design can be very distracting, as people on the spectrum tend to be visually-orientated.
  • Spatial quality: A tight space can feel suffocating, while a space that is too open can bring on a free-falling feeling.
  • Texture: Sensory sensitivities to texture are common in autistic disorders.
  • Color: Colors can have an effect on anyone, but people on the spectrum may be far more sensitive to the psychological and physical effects of color.

Building the Framework

Architecture design related to pervasive developmental disorders begins on a foundation of research. A basic framework for creating an environment for people with pervasive developmental disorders may incorporate the following qualities:

  • Spatial sequencing: An organized environment that makes sense spatially can be simple to construct. Creating stations, or compartmentalizing areas according to activities is a common approach in an autism support classroom.
  • Acoustics: Areas that have fewer auditory distractions can help improve attention while lessening verbal stims or outbursts.
  • Escape area: A place to have quiet time can help a person on the spectrum deescalate, and it can help calm and organize behavior.
  • Clutter-free spaces: Too much visual stimulation can be very distracting, whether the person is on the spectrum or not. Clean lines and sparse decorations can help a person with autism stay on task.
  • One-way flow: The space design in open-plan classrooms are prime examples of confusing spaces. A multipurpose room with open design can be very problematic. To address this problem, architects can opt to create areas that encourage an organized, one-way flow.

Design Intervention

You can download a copy of An Architecture Design for Autism: Concepts for Design Intervention for the Autistic User on ArchNet's Digital Library. The publication provides details about studies on autism and physical environments, and it offers ideas for creating designs with the needs of people with autism in mind, according to the study's results:

  1. The "sensory design matrix" matches autistic sensory issues with architectural elements. The sensory design matrix inspires guidelines for designs.
  2. A presentation of the guidelines that the design matrix suggests helps bring the concepts to life.
  3. Specific design guidelines serve as a basis for more developments for autistic design standards.

Physical Environment and Autism

The physical environment can have a great impact on a person's ability to stay focused, and it can affect behavior. Just as a typical person may feel overwhelmed in a crowded room with loud music and flashing lights, a person on the spectrum may feel equally overwhelmed in schools, communities, and even in his or her home.

Architecture design sensitive to the autism spectrum should be everywhere, but this is simply not realistic. However, using guidelines for educational and therapeutic spaces can be of great benefit. For example, a soundproof speech therapy room can help a student on the spectrum focus on listening and articulation.

Children with autism are famous for having tantrums in public places, often leading to common misconceptions of autistic disorders. Sadly, addressing the behavioral problem requires desensitizing the child, which can take time and it can take repeated visits to the space that triggers the tantrums. While creating spaces that are sensitive to the special needs of this population can be a great benefit, it is also prudent to acclimate a child on the spectrum to new, and sometimes uncomfortable environments as well.

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Architecture Design for Autism