Designing for the Autism Spectrum

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.

Understanding the Symptoms
May 16, 2012, 9:16 AM
Filed under: Defining Autism | Tags: ,

A pretty little girl sits with her hands clasped in front of her, waiting for the bus to arrive.  At seven years old, she still requires someone to help her zip her coat and put on her boots.  Her form of communication is just expanding to making correct gestures and grunts.  The doll-like expressions she makes convey something that is almost “other-worldly, another state of mind or an absence of self.”  “Living in a world apart.” 1

A new epidemic is upon us.  Autism has become exponentially more apparent in society in the last 10 years.  Autism, as described by the National Society for Children and Adults with Autism, is a slowed development of physical, social and learning capabilities.  Communication skills are usually minimal to none, with very limited abilities to comprehend ideas.  The senses are extremely affected, either being hypersensitive or restricted.

Autism is a disorder that seems to separate the person from the world.  It affects the person’s ability to effectively communicate and establish relationships.  Even though the concentration of people with autism are children, it does not mean autism is only a childhood disorder.  Autism is a developmental disorder.  It affects the development of these individuals, which in turn, affects the progression of the disorder.  1

The autistic aloneness describes a child’s ability to shut  out the real world. The desire for sameness illustrates the repetitive nature needed by children with autism.  The sameness enables the individual to rely on something or to count on something to keep him or her safe.  Many children are not able to communicate, but every child with autism is capable of excelling in some aspect of life.  To understand each individual need allows the opportunity for greatness among each of these individuals.

From six months old and on, a child uses its own body to interpret and understand others.  Merleau-Ponty describes the four distinguishing divisions of understanding:

1. Myself (psyche)

2. Image of own body

3. Others image of own body

4. Others psyche2

These are helpful in relating to others and creating a perceptival universe. Some individuals with autism have the inability to consciously develop the self-psyche.  The world is experienced through observation instead of “doing.”  Many children with autism are unaware of any image they have of themselves.

This becomes a juxtaposition between being completely absorbed into one’s self, and not quite knowing the extent of one’s self-existence.  When interacting with an individual with autism, there is almost always a disconnected exchange. This demonstrates the individual’s inability to not only understand another’s psyche or being, but also the idea that someone else could have an understanding of them.  As designers, we need to enter that world in order to understand the symptoms of each individual person that is affected.


1 Frith, U. (2003). Autism: Explaining the Enigma (2 ed.). United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing.

2 Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). The Primacy of Perception. USA: Northwestern University Press.