Designing for the Autism Spectrum

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