Designing for the Autism Spectrum

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.


As a Child
May 3, 2012, 4:27 PM
Filed under: Architecture

As a design student, I was taught to approach architecture with the eyes of a child, to pull from past experiences to create architecture through metaphor, reducing experiences, objects, actions to a “what is it like?”

What is it like to:

Stand on your tiptoes

Open a book for the first time

Pull a bow across the strings of a cello

Walk into a cave

These words bring about very distinct images to mind. You call upon your own experiences of standing on your toes and feeling the pressure,  you remember the new textbook you open and hearing the sound of the pages crinkling and even smelling that new book smell, etc… These memories, fueled by sense, allow us to compare what we know with what is in front of us.

Designing from these experiences and translating them into built form allow us to connect to our audience, our society.  What happens, though, when there is a disconnect from designer to client, when the society we have designed for has changed?

He was the boy that they always wanted.  When he turned five and still did not talk, they began to worry.  He started having temper tantrums and would not look them in the eye.  When they made him look at them, he closed his eyes and the world around him disappeared.

One can hardly perceive the difficulty of a life of a child who feels pain when staring into the eyes of a loved one, who rocks back and forth to keep the built-up energy within from exploding, and whose inability to communicate prevents caretakers from knowing what will help, so how have we designed for them?