Designing for the Autism Spectrum

Atmosphere- Action.
November 18, 2013, 10:54 AM
Filed under: Autism + Design | Tags: , , , ,

I had recently submitted an abstract for a paper to present at the 2014 Atmosphere symposium in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba.  I am happy to say that my paper has been accepted and I will be presenting at this conference in February.  The abstract follows:

Poetic Action for Autism: An Intersubjective Approach

Fueled by our senses, we frame our world view with our experiences and memories. Through narrative and history, we translate these experiences and memories into built form to connect to our society on a transcendental level.  What happens, though, when there is disconnect and we cannot think as our client does?  This paper proposes that we are called to use our design sensibilities to understand the nature of materials, textures, and poetic experiences of architectural space, in consideration for specific rituals for those with autism.  These well established rituals could be used as a holistic “treatment” for those who appear to mainstream society as limited in their mental abilities.

Autism is classified as a specialized disorder in which those affected have minimal to no communication skills and senses that are hypersensitive or restricted.  To be defined in this way is detrimental to those affected by autism.  Their world is experienced through observation rather than “doing.”  Computer programs, video games, TV shows, and medication allow those with autism to retreat into a world of their own; thus, their interaction with the real world becomes static.  Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Sciences at the University of Colorado, also autistic, states that those with autism are bottom-up thinkers.  They understand the inherent nature of things on a primal level.

In our current means and methods of design, we are also experiencing through observation rather than “doing.”  However, as architects designing specific one-to-one scale objects, we are able to enter the world of an individual and incite within that individual an intersubjective world view.  One-to-one scale objects inform our architectural decisions in a metaphorical way – stretching the perceptions of those with autism that will reawaken their ability to interact with society.

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