Autism characteristics

Characteristics which pose architectural demands
Since the dsm is a classification system which offers few indications for treatment or its evaluation, the Dutch center for autism, Dr. Leo Kannerhuis makes, among other things, so-called treatment-diagnoses. The point of departure for those are, among other things, two series of characteristics. One are chracteristics for autism ‘proper’, so to say, the other are so-called ego-characteristics. They can be viewed as dimensions because both types of characteristics are more or less independent: one can score high on the autism-dimension and low on the ego-dimension – and vise versa. A weaker ego is virtually always present and yet it is more or less independent from the severity of autism.

We employ this two-dimensional scheme, devised to arrive at treatment diagnoses, in another way; here it guides decisions about architectural measures.

Autism dimension: Ego strength-dimension
Limitations in social interaction:

  • Degree of reciprocity in relationships

Limitations in understanding / interpretation of nonverbal behavior:

  • Posture & facial expression
  • Recognition of emotions

Limitations in communication:

  • Level of language understanding
  • Level of play

Stereotypical patterns of behavior, interests and activity’s:

  • Preoccupations
  • Rigidity


Sensory sensitivity

Executive functioning:

  • Planning and organization
  • Cognitive Shifting

Central Coherence:

  • Keeping overview

Regulation difficulties:

  • Passion
  • Emotions
  • Behavior

Reality testing

Conscience development

Integration function



Separately specified/added (apart from dimensions):


  • The demands which are posed on buildings and their design, follow the same logic as shown above: the ‘scores’ on these dimensions run parallel to the demands on the environment.
  • In the context of architecture and autism six additional terms are added to the scheme of the Kannerhuis. (Which is practical but not entirely without complications.)
  • Part of the autism-dimension is ‘sensory sensitivity’ which generally co-varies with the severity of the autism. It’s importance in the context of design is hardly done justice by indicating it with only one term in this scheme. It plays a part in almost three quarters of all recommendations, and will require considerable specification to be useful in this context.

Architecture for autism happens (or should happen) where these characteristics meet the designed environment. This occurs, very broadly, in three overlapping domains:

In the physical and visual structure of the environment, which should be clear. Here problems stemming from Weak Central Coherence and weak Executive functioning, stand out most.

Around over- and under-sensitive senses, which call for the avoidance, muting and shielding, or any other lessening of sensory impressions, for oversensitive people. And the reverse in cases of sensory under-sensitivity. As stated above, the senses play a part in almost three quarters of all recommendations. About 20% of them are exclusively concerned with the senses.

In the social possibilities and limitations the physical environment sets. Specifically, limitations in social communication and interaction pose demands on the size and the arrangement of spaces of a building. Withdrawal spaces are almost always necessary. When people live, work or learn together in groups, the common use of spaces and facilities poses important demands on the design of a building and its spaces.

Nota bene: above each recommendation under “because” the autistic and associated characteristics are listed which are the target or the occasion of the proposed measure. The relationship between the characteristics and the measure is, however, hypothetical. Often this relationship is straightforward such as between oversensitivity to noise and noise-measures. But often it is speculative, as in the case of promoting visual clarity and Central coherence and/or ‘shifting’. The precise character of many of these relationships is still unproven and one of the long-term aims of this website is to achieve more clarity about these relationships, so that, ideally, for each measure it will be established which autistic characteristics it serves.        


treatment diagnoses
The best source for this is their handbook: Timmer, Saskia, Elly Smits, e.a., Oog voor detail!! Raamwerk voor maatwerk in de behandeling van mensen met autisme. Doorwerth, Dr. Leo Kannerhuis, januari 2008.
The most important complication is an overlap concerning ‘Limitations in understanding/interpretation of nonverbal behavior’ on one hand and the added ToM on the other. The latter is narrower and a cognitive style, while the former characteristic includes face recognition, is wider and is an autism symptom per se.
co-varies with the severity of the autism
Zie Horder, J., Wilson, C. E., Mendez, M. A., & Murphy, D. J. (2014). Autistic traits and abnormal sensory experiences in adults. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 1461-1469.Download hier. Tomchek, S. D., & Dunn, W., ‘Sensory processing in children with and without autism: A comparative study using the Short Sensory Profile.’ In: American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61(2007)2(March/April), 190-200. En: Robertson, Ashley E. and David R. Simmons, ‘Sensory Sensitivities in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Qualitative Analysis’, Conference paper, International Meeting for Autism Research 2010; 05/2010.