Designing for the Autism Spectrum

Rocky Mountain Green: USGBC Colorado
February 8, 2018, 11:15 AM
Filed under: Autism + Design, Uncategorized, USGBC | Tags: , ,


Another speaking opportunity! I’m very excited to not only be able to continue to present on this topic, but I have been fortunate enough to find like-minded colleagues to collaborate with as well.  I hope I am able to minimize the time between posts with more speaking opportunities and be able to share my experiences as well.

I will be presenting with Meaghan Walls of Assistology in Omaha and Stuart Shell of Forte Building Science (a division of M.E. GROUP). Meaghan is a hands-on engineer whose company provides assistive technology solutions for businesses and individuals. Stuart works in IT for building systems, focusing on optimizing the environment’s performance and the human experience.

Our session for the May 3rd, 2018 regional conference will focus on the sustainability movement and how action in the present moment will increasingly draw from human-centered sciences like ethnography and neuroscience.  We shift the core of the movement from exclusively environmental to empathy – caring for each other, here and now.  There is no better lens to view this transformation from than disability – a cultural construct that limits who can partake in public life.

Discovering Human Experience in Accessibility

What is an accessible design in our age with ADHD and Autism? And what does that have to do with sustainability? Developments in neuroscience and technology provide new approaches to inclusive design. This presentation will illustrate how a person-centered approach to barrier-free design results in better buildings for all users.

May 3rd, 2018

For registration for the conference:

June 21, 2017, 7:53 AM
Filed under: Uncategorized

Recently, I was invited to speak at the Sioux Falls, SD PechaKucha event.  A PechaKucha is a short presentation with 20 slides, each for 20 seconds.  Originating in Toyko, Japan, the intent was to engage the audience about a topic in a succinct way.

I chose to speak about my passion: my research of how design affects one with autism.

Please feel free to listen here:




Atmosphere- Action.
November 18, 2013, 10:54 AM
Filed under: Autism + Design | Tags: , , , ,

I had recently submitted an abstract for a paper to present at the 2014 Atmosphere symposium in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba.  I am happy to say that my paper has been accepted and I will be presenting at this conference in February.  The abstract follows:

Poetic Action for Autism: An Intersubjective Approach

Fueled by our senses, we frame our world view with our experiences and memories. Through narrative and history, we translate these experiences and memories into built form to connect to our society on a transcendental level.  What happens, though, when there is disconnect and we cannot think as our client does?  This paper proposes that we are called to use our design sensibilities to understand the nature of materials, textures, and poetic experiences of architectural space, in consideration for specific rituals for those with autism.  These well established rituals could be used as a holistic “treatment” for those who appear to mainstream society as limited in their mental abilities.

Autism is classified as a specialized disorder in which those affected have minimal to no communication skills and senses that are hypersensitive or restricted.  To be defined in this way is detrimental to those affected by autism.  Their world is experienced through observation rather than “doing.”  Computer programs, video games, TV shows, and medication allow those with autism to retreat into a world of their own; thus, their interaction with the real world becomes static.  Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Sciences at the University of Colorado, also autistic, states that those with autism are bottom-up thinkers.  They understand the inherent nature of things on a primal level.

In our current means and methods of design, we are also experiencing through observation rather than “doing.”  However, as architects designing specific one-to-one scale objects, we are able to enter the world of an individual and incite within that individual an intersubjective world view.  One-to-one scale objects inform our architectural decisions in a metaphorical way – stretching the perceptions of those with autism that will reawaken their ability to interact with society.

Object Study
November 5, 2012, 9:23 AM
Filed under: Autism + Design | Tags:

Individuals with autism are affected by the tiniest detail and are being bombarded by overstimulation in our society every day.  Simplifying design while focusing our efforts on details that may be overlooked could not only help this specific group but our entire society as well.

This can be achieved through studies of objects and materials.  The idea of creating stair-like objects came from a discussion of how children learn.  By using architectural elements, I was able to explore different ways to describe what a stair was, and how it was used in a smaller scale. The first material used was steel and wood.  These were the first initial materials to be used in the final design of the building.  Wood introduces a warm feeling into the building, while steel has a rigidity that offers structure and support.


The second material used was walnut.  I was able to carve stairs into a piece of walnut that was eventually sanded down to allow the user of this object to continuously slide his/her finger along the steps repeatedly. The repetition introduced by this object opened a new idea to the project. The need for this “rubbing” to keep happening needed to appear spatially in the final design.

The smoothness of the material and how the object was designed to control user’s need to continuously use the object advanced the design of the building. Image

Concrete was the third and final material used in this series of explorations.  The stair-like qualities in this exploration become quite literal.  This allowed me to understand the weight of concrete as well as the different textures that could be created with different molds and concrete types. Image

Designing for Autism: More able, not less disabled
August 29, 2012, 4:50 PM
Filed under: Autism + Design

This is  the title of a column by Christopher N. Henry, written for ArchDaily.  This addresses some of the concern of how to design for children with autism, with the emphasis on designing for the abled, not disabled.  Autism is labeled as a disability, but should start being looked at as a type of ability.  Having the sensitivity to create spaces for children with autism should start looking like having sensitivity to create spaces for children.  Being more in tune with the emotional, physiologically needs of a child could benefit the ability of that child to learn.

The top design criteria from the Debra November Wing of the Lerner School for Autism at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital Center for Autism are as follows. (Taken from Henry , Christopher N. . “Designing for Autism: More Able Not Less Disabled” 07 Dec 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 Aug 2012.)

  1. Limit stimulation and prevent distractions
    1. Minimize the use of grids, busy patterns, and bold colors in building materials
    2. Provide spaces for one-on-one student-teacher activities
  2. Control clutter, while still allowing children to make autonomous choices
    1. Provide adequate built-in storage to limit exposure of educational materials not in use
  3. Control Acoustics
    1. Design air-conditioning systems to minimize machine noise and air noise
    2. Provide acoustic separation between rooms
  4. Provide proper indoor air quality and temperature control
    1. HVAC systems to be multizone VAV system with filtration and adequate air changes
  5. Prevent injury
    1. Eliminate sharp corners and projections from surfaces
    2. Provide resilient surfaces
  6. Minimize perceived flicker from lighting sources
    1. Provide lighting sources that do not create a distraction
    2. Provide window treatments
  7. Provide durability
    1. Use impact- and stain-resistant materials.

These are a few things to be mindful of while designing the details of the building, but what about how the child interacts with the spaces that are created?  The environment plays a major role in how each child with autism, each person “typical,” or not, learns from or rejects an experience.  By being empathetic in the use of materials and lighting as well as how each space is constructed, we are able to make spaces not only for children with autism, but to better benefit their “typical” peers as well.  Alvar Alto said we should always design for the weakest. By designing for the weakest, we are able to all able to benefit.

The link to the Christopher Henry article at ArchDaily is as follows:

August 17, 2012, 9:30 AM
Filed under: Autism + Design | Tags: , ,

How the body moves through spaces created by architects depends solely on the program of the building.  The program for each building defines the rituals that take place on a daily basis.  In one of my studio classes, we were required to develop a program based on a tea ceremony with the help of The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura.  After many discussions of what a tea ceremony is, what it does, and how it affects the participants, we were able to design our own ritual/program.   From this ritual we were able to design how the spaces helped create this ritual, how the tea master and participants engage the teach house through its construction, materiality, and developed spaces.

When creating a ritualistic narrative for a building, metaphor becomes part of the main design.  The metaphors used help the participant relate and engage the building.  They also can become metaphors for other spaces as well, such as a hallway created of continuous columns in a garden, could be compared to the processional of a church.

Rituals are not only used within sacred ideologies, but also in daily life as something we refer to as a routine.  Children with autism crave routine and schedules.  This becomes something of a determining factor of how to cope with the overstimulation of our daily lives.  As the architecture dictates the ritual of a church, school, or home, so should architecture dictate and adapt to the needs of the ones who need it most.  Thus, by considering the ritual of treatment for children with disabilities, the architecture could be created as part of that treatment.

This process of developing a ritual should be employed by those creating spaces for children with autism.  The attention to details, such as how the building is constructed, to what material is being used to build the space as well as how light interacts with the spaces throughout the day.

The wide variety of symptoms in the autism spectrum makes it more difficult to create spaces for stereotypical children with autism.  In order to create memorable spaces for children with autism, one must create a ritual, create spaces that engage the child through the movement of his/her body and create a memory that helps them start to understand how to adapt to new difficult situations.  Responding to the natural environment naturally is not always possible for some.  This is when architecture could be used to help build confidence for these children to face the world.

Architecturally, there are few buildings that have been designed specifically for this disorder.  International Building Codes has yet to employ any codes that would be advantageous for people with autism.  This growing epidemic is being addressed by school systems and learning centers, but is just beginning to be addressed by the built community.1

The built society needs to be aware of the effect they are not only having on children with special needs physically, but also mentally. There has been much discussion as to how buildings should be developed, which would help in the future of this specialized design typology.  These items have been studied through observing how children with autism react to certain colors, spaces, and textures.  By acknowledging that these children understand the environment around them, we are then allowed to shape that environment to protect and push them forward in their learning.  According to Patricia Myler’s (2003) article, “Eliminating Distractions,” the environment created should have a feeling of softness.  This enveloping cushion could be seen almost womb-like for these children.  This also describes the color palette said to be acceptable for these spaces.1

Muted tones are calming and simplistic.  The overwhelming reds, yellows, and blues are known to cause emotional turmoil for some.  Particularly, there are many areas that may be addressed to create a positive learning space for students with autism.  Suggestions from Simon Humphreys’ article2 includes limited material changes, limited detailing, or simplified detailing, intimate volumes for spaces, but also open areas to discourage the institutionalized feeling of the building.

Consistencies in the details that are designed are also necessary.  These include ceiling heights, door heights, locations of light switches, and door handles. Sustainable design requires the building to be adaptable for reuse.  By designing for the subtly specific, I believe you are able to design universally.

These individuals with autism can pick up on the tiniest detail and are being bombarded by overstimulation in our society every day.  Simplifying design while focusing our efforts on details that may be overlooked could not only help this specific group but our entire society as well.


  1. Myler, P. (2003, November 1). Eliminating Distractions. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from American School and University:
  2. Humphreys, S. (2008). Architecture and Autism 2008. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from Auctores : 2010

Who should adapt?
June 15, 2012, 12:02 PM
Filed under: Defining Autism

Architecture must have the ability to adapt to those who are incapable of adapting to their own environment. By considering the ritual of treatment for children with disabilities, the architecture could be created as part of that treatment. Attention must be called to the increase in disabilities among the children in our society.  Creating spaces that can focus the energy specifically for the needs of these children could increase their ability to adapt more effectively to their environment.


As an individual affected herself, Temple Grandin describes three categories for learning with autism.  The first is visual learning.  This includes objects, such as playing with Lego’s, building blocks, and Kinects. When attempting to communicate their needs to others, they will often need to use pictures.  This also pertains to being asked to complete a task; the adult figure may need to use pictures along with words for the child to comprehend what he or she is being asked to do.


The second way of learning is through music and math.  These subjects use patterns and relationships between the numbers and notes.  This allows the child to take advantage of the ideas that keep them calm to create something and let them communicate in another way to the rest of the world.  This is why music and art are so very important in autistic treatment.


The final way of learning is based on verbal logic.  Some children with autism have knowledge of numbers that exceeds most typical peers.  Their brain has been wired almost as a computer and this allows their mind to solve problems very advanced for their age.  Some children have a preference of which numbers they like best, such as the Fibonacci sequence or prime numbers.1


There is no cure for autism, only treatments.  The most effective treatment starts at an early age as an intervention step.  Each treatment is specialized for each individual case.  No two children with autism have the same symptoms.This creates a high demand for one-to-one contact.


The teachers involved in the early intervention are asked to create strategies for the targeted behaviors and push the students to reach these goals.3  Targeted behaviors include everything from being able to use the toilet, zip up their coat, put on their own clothes to learning how to behave in a classroom, hallway, or playground.  Every person involved with this child’s life must be focused together to create a solid group of influence for this child who so desperately needs a foundation to build on.3  Specialized teachers are available for most public school systems, but there are also specialized schools for children with autism who are unable to be in the school system.  These children are either unable to be in school because of violence or they cannot handle the extra stimulation a school creates.4


These problems are created when the levels of frustration come exploding out in violent forms, such as hitting, kicking, screaming, yelling, and/or tantrums.  When students with autism become violent, they are almost always removed from the school setting to ensure the safety of other students and teachers. Once removed, these students attend specialized schools with other students like themselves.

This should be considered a temporary solution.  Kris Helfer, a staff member from the Rochester Autism Center, ( described the goals they have for the students as being able for the student to return to the school system.  If the center accepted a student from the school system, they work together to return the student to his or her normal environment as quickly as possible.  The Rochester Autism Center is one of many specialized centers in the United States.  They strive to create an environment that pushes each student to accept things they are usually not willing to accept.  They maintain a solid foundation for the student to be comfortable, but ensure each and every child is capable of expanding their boundaries for a “typical” life.


“Segregation of children with special needs is morally unjustifiable; it promotes isolation, alienation and social exclusion.”5  Specialized centers for children with autism should be considered a transition space.  These children will hopefully move on stronger than they were when they entered.  They need to have the space to grow in an environment that is empathetic to their needs, but also pushes them to become the most they can be. There is hope of growth for each and every individual, if they are treated as such.




1.  Grandin, T. (2010). Autism- The Way I See It. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from Temple Grandin,   PhD:

2.  Barrow, L. (1968). The Story of an Autistic Child. Sydney: Halstead Press.

3.  Hinerman, P. S. (1983). Teaching Autistic Children to Communicate. Salt Lake City:Aspen Publication.

4.  Seifert, C. D. (1990). Theories of Autism. New York, Lanham: University Press of America.

5.  Mullick, A. (2009, November). Incorporating the Behavioral Dimension in Designing  Inclusive Learning Environment for Autism. 3 . Archnet-IJAR, International  Journal of Architectural Research.