Designing for the Autism Spectrum

Sensitive Nature
May 31, 2012, 9:29 AM
Filed under: Autism + Design

Rhythm, repetition, and calm can help children with autism create a sense of ritual for themselves. Many children with autism have very specific rituals that must be kept in place.  If these schedules are disrupted, the sense of unbalance has the ability to overtake the child and create an emotional breakdown.   It is not logical for these children to do anything other than what has been prescribed for them as their ritual for any length of time.1

As children, individuals with autism are extremely vulnerable.  They are not necessarily aware of the dangers of the world that surrounds them.  They also may not retain memories of harmful things, such as touching their hands on a hot stove, cutting themselves on sharp edges, or tasting toxic materials.  They must be reminded of those things, until it is processed in their mind.

Many children with autism are self-destructive; they understand the effects of harmful objects and use them to receive attention when they feel they are being ignored.

Since autism affects the central nervous system, some children are very sensitive to textures, light, colors and/or food.1 These also vary for each child. Bright lights can over stimulate most children with autism, as well as flickering halogen lights.  Darker spaces or naturally lit spaces are the most calming for these children.2

Some children are drawn toward certain textures, whether those textures are rough, bumpy, sandy, course, gritty, smooth, soft, or squishy. Other children will avoid certain textures at all costs.  Bright colors have a similar effect on these children as artificial light.  A more soothing color palette uses muted colors.  Despite the difficulty it takes for a child with autism to create a relationship with another person, the ability to relate to objects is outstanding.  They become fixated with “things.”  The static nature of these objects allows the child to focus on their entirety without being overwhelmed.  The constant changing emotions of others are disruptive, while objects remain the same.3   This gives the illusion of an “aloofness” of an individual with autism.1

 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.2

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, paces, 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.


  1. Frith, U. (2003). Autism: Explaining the Enigma (2 ed.). United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing.
  2. Myler, P. (2003, November 1). Eliminating Distractions. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from American School and University:
  3. Hinerman, P. S. (1983). Teaching Autistic Children to Communicate. Salt Lake City:Aspen Publication.