7 myths about autism-friendly design
1. Autism-friendly design is all about the senses
It is true that (almost) everyone on the autism spectrum has divergent sensory experiences. These experiences have to be taken into account in design and building. One should primarily think of noise, excessive sunlight, temperature or odor. However, only 18% of the recommendations on this website exclusively try to meet sensory issues. Other aspects of autism concern 15% of the recommendations; the remaining 67% intend to meet both sensory and other issues. The other issues are primarily about weak orientation (i.e. preventing one from getting lost in a building) and the architectural conditions for social interaction (i.e. minimizing the risk of being bullied at school or having processing time when someone shows up at the front door).
Meeting autistic peculiarities is not a goal in itself but means which contribute to several ends. An important – maybe the most important – aim is the promotion of social integration of people on the autism spectrum. In order to achieve social integration schools should be built and furnished in a way which enables pupils to concentrate, which requires a whole range of measures including:
- supervision against bullying
- withdrawal possibilities in the classroom or separate spaces
- clear demarcations of separate functions of classes and other spaces (often helped by autism-adequate wayfinding)
- preventing students from being pressed together in narrow corridors
- bearable artificial lighting
- and much more.
Comparable modifications also apply to work spaces and public spaces such as theaters, railway stations and post offices.
The aim is social integration and the means are ways to meet the autistic peculiarities of the individual. These peculiarities are, as said before, very often a mixture of sensory and other difficulties:
- A withdrawal space for instance doesn’t only reduce sensory stimuli, but also the social pressure resulting from having to interact and communicate with others
- Wide corridors and staircases may prevent one from being touched by others (involving the sense of touch), but also from losing one’s way when moving from one space to the other.
One of the other aims is safety.
- This may concern the danger of burning oneself on hot water because temperature may not be properly detected, which may be averted by installing a temperature limiter (an anti-scald device) on the kitchen or bathroom tap
- Safety is also the issue around the risk of ‘elopement’ from a home or institution by a child or an adult who cannot deal adequately with the dangers of life outside. In such a case the danger can be reduced by a combination of supervision and safe demarcations with the public space.
2. When it is about the senses it’s always about stimulus reduction
The sensory problems of people on the autism spectrum are to a large extent so called ‘modulation problems’, i.e. problems in regulating the signal strength in the brain, comparable to the volume of ones’ sound equipment.
Deviations in the stimulus transmission in the brains cause ‘the volume’ of specific senses to be too high or too low, which is tantamount to saying a sensory threshold is too low or too high. Among people with autism there are about the same number with too high and too low thresholds; the same person can have a high threshold for one sense and a low one for another.
This means that, concerning noise, the ideal location of residence for someone on the spectrum may be a busy intersection for one and a remote place in the countryside for another. The same goes for any other sense.
As for visual stimuli: some need plenty to see, while others can only bear a little. One person doesn’t mind living in industrial stench whereas another person cannot bear the slightest odor – and so on.
Why then is the adjective ‘low-stimulus’ mentioned so often along with ‘withdrawal spaces’?
Answer: because many homes and buildings aren’t used by one but by several on the spectrum.
When (re)designing for a group consisting of both people with oversensitive ears and earless ones, then solid soundproofing is called for. The same goes for other sensory mixed groups: subdued colors, filtered light, odor-free, smooth, even surfaces, easy to oversee layout.
Autism-friendly design means that in schools and treatment facilities and wherever groups of people are together, the over-sensitive are spared. Those with high sensory thresholds can almost always find individual solutions and can have strong colors or high volumes – through earphones or otherwise – in their own quarters.
As a result provisions for people with high stimuli-thresholds are much rarer than for those with low thresholds. Snoozling rooms on the one hand and play sets which appeal to the proprioceptive and vestibular senses on the other, are the most notable ones. Because sensory mixed groups are often the users, it is often about stimulus reduction even though individual autistic people need an excess of stimuli about as often.
3. Autism-friendly designers aim to create a separate autistic world
The objection against this presumed ambition is that a separate world which is attuned to autistic sensibilities stands in the way of social integration of people on the spectrum; one would be unable to survive outside such an autistic enclave. At first glance such an objection makes much sense. It is, however directed at a myth because in autism-friendly design, and on this website in particular, one embraces the principle as ordinary as possible, as special as necessary. (See here.) In each instance an assessment should determine the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. The person who isn’t unduly bothered by noise, doesn’t need extra soundproofing. The same applies to all sensory issues and also to matters of orientation and to the influence of the built environment on social contact.
Considerations about sensory mixed groups as mentioned above apply here too. In schools, for instance, one aspires to good soundproofing and a clear layout for all. This does not mean students are relegated to a silent and all too simple world which renders them unfit to live in the ordinary world. The vast majority of students spend most of their time in the ordinary world outside school which is complicated and noisy.
Children and youth with far-reaching forms of autism are sometimes fully (24 hours per day / 7 days a week) hospitalized. For the rare children / young people who will remain dependent on an institution most or all of their lives, an inclusive environment which is adapted to their peculiarities may indeed be called for, which is, however, extremely rare.
Other hospitalized youths who do have the prospect of living (semi-)independently in the future are being prepared for this by means of training and treatment. They can, for instance, best be trained in cooking in a kitchen that resembles the kitchen they may at some point have.
On this website the level of the necessary adaptations of the environment is moreover assessed on the basis of a schedule adapted from one which determines the appropriate level of autism treatment and training. A second criterion are the individual future expectations: if one expects to live in a city, then going to school in one makes sense.
4. Autism-friendly design is unnecessary because everyone with autism can learn to adapt sufficiently to a taxing environment
One of the proponents of this myth puts it this way: “The adaptation to the average context may initially take some more time and energy, but the result is broader and more sustainable…”
As far as sensory difficulties are concerned, the presumption is in fact that all people with autism are able to learn to adapt sufficiently to the average sensory challenges. However, serious sensory difficulties of people on the spectrum are substantially or completely permanent, since they are caused by structural brain disorders, which are present from an early age. In some cases a certain correction in flawed brain processes is possible. It is absolutely impossible, however, that everyone with autism or even a majority of them will sufficiently get used to all sensory difficulties associated with autism to be able to use spaces in the same way as neurotypicals.
Only general statements can be made about the broad array of other autistic traits which autism-friendly design tries to accommodate.
- Spatial orientation (because it has so many varied causes) improves somewhat with age, but certainly not to a substantial degree for everyone on the spectrum
- Social and/ or communication problems will remain at least to some extent with everyone with autism. Architectural measures which help prevent social complications will remain necessary.
To advocate against architectural measures aimed at improving supervision in schools to help avoid bullying even seems dangerous in the light of the psychological and physical damage caused by bullying.
5. Autism-friendly design may be beneficial to some, but is relatively unimportant in comparison to social and psychological efforts
The value presently attached to autism-friendly design can be expressed in the relative amount of money and effort, which is spent in comparison to social and psychological efforts. If we only look a the costs of treatment, training and counseling (training, materials, salaries, buildings, underlying research) and compare these to the actual incurred costs of making buildings and homes autism-friendly we can roughly estimate a proportion of 1000 to 1.
Social and psychological efforts such as treatment, training, counseling and awareness are of enormous importance for the Quality of Life of people on the spectrum, but not a 1000 times as important as adaptation of the physical environment. Imagine one could choose who to bring along to an uninhabited island. Apart from food, three things seem essential for survival: physical health, the functioning of the group and shelter against the elements and other dangers. Therefore a physician, a (group) psychologist and an engineer/builder would be useful. If one could only bring two out of these three, who would they be? Most would probably choose the physician and fewer the psychologist and the engineer. Only if the engineer would be chosen by 1 in 1000, then this proposition would not be a myth.
6. Once one begins with autism-friendly design, there should also be ADHD-friendly design, depression-friendly and OCD-friendly design and indeed architectures for all DSM-categories – where will this end?
This isn’t as absurd as it may seem. ‘Customized care’ has become generally accepted as better, more efficient and more respectful care than what went before. Customized architecture too implies that the peculiarities of the individual are leading, whatever they may be. So there is an extensive and successful evidence-based practice of adapting the environment to the needs of the demented elderly, another DSM-category. The same is happening for more than a decade in physical care, under the banner of ‘healing environments’ with proven effects on Quality of Life and cost reduction.
Autism-friendly design is an upcoming field of practice which can learn much from these more developed fields. Design for specific diseases and disabilities is lagging behind. It has become clear that a specific autism-friendly approach is warranted. For other conditions (such as ADHD, OCD) however this remains to be seen. In the longer term lets hope the ‘universal’ or ‘inclusive design’-movement will be successful, helped by technological and knowledge developments, in building for most groups and, who knows, ultimately for all.
7. Autism-friendly design? Never heard of that
The most prevalent negative response to autism-friendly design probably is no response at all. If denying its existence can be called a myth, it prevails mainly among neurotypicals who don’t give much thought to the circumstance that the built environment is to a large extent attuned to their own sensibilities and capabilities. They haven’t taken the trouble or lack the imagination to appreciate the experience of living, working and learning in buildings in which noise, light, temperature or the odor is unbearable, in which they get lost or are forced into social contact which they find aversive. If neurotypicals have such experiences they can get used to them or, with a bit of luck, break away from them. People on the spectrum, however, have such experiences everywhere and can hardly adapt or not at all, because of their ‘different brains’.
Autism-friendly design is nothing other than leveling the playing field so people with and without autism can deal with the physical environment on equal terms.