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:

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I too am designing for autism, as of now I am just a student but the focus of my graduate thesis is on this topic.

Comment by Fallynn

You wrote this almost four years ago. How did you fare since? Im curious to know if you created or were given enough chances to realize your ambition and, of so, what yo did.

Comment by Flip Schrameijer

That is great! Feel free to email me if you would like to discuss. My email is

Comment by alydvorak

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