Dilemmas are unavoidable when putting knowledge and ideas about architecture and autism into practice. They can be small or big and practical or fundamental.

Possibly the most fundamental one is: how far can or must one go in adapting the environment to autism. Most other dilemmas around autism are related to this one. On the one hand one wants to avoid painful and upsetting confrontations with the regular social and physical world, on the other there is the ambition to partake in it as fully as possible. There are many ways to formulate this dilemma. One is as the tension between safety and ‘holding’ versus social challenges and contact. How does one weigh both sides of this quandary?

One important consideration is the expectation whether a (semi-)independent life in the community is or will be possible. If it is, the adaptations, should be minimal. This dilemma becomes more acute when such a prognosis is difficult to make. In such a case some risk seems justified. When in doubt there is the risk of withholding opportunities for independent living from people who can do it; such a risk one wants to avoid most of all, but then again, not against any price.

Another (more autism-specific) consideration is the degree to which the individual suffers from generalization problems; the more this is the case, the less deviation from ordinary situations is called for.

In all these choices the individual needs of the person are leading and should be made under the rule ‘as ordinary as possible, as special as necessary’.

Furthermore, a series of dilemmas can be identified which are akin to the one above which too, need a careful weighing of pros and cons, tailored to the individual and one’s developmental phase. They arise in day-to-day decisions such as: can one do the groceries on ones own? Can one join the others on a holiday? Can one use public transport independently? If at all possible, the preferable response is: ‘yes, unless’ where the ‘unless’ is mainly determined by earlier experiences with the same person.

A specific dilemma which occurs notably in schools, treatment, and long-stay homes is between ‘low stimulus’ and ‘stimulating’. Fuchs et.al. write that neurobiological research in the context of special education has shown stimuli to be very important for the creation of connections in the brain which is why children have a need for external stimuli, new information and alternation. If the need for these stimuli goes unfulfilled, write these authors, it can lead to boredom and restlessness. On the other hand special education insiders emphasize the importance of a quiet, clear environment for a child. Too many stimuli can even be harmful. Especially children with behavioral and psycho-social problems – to whom we can emphatically add children on the spectrum – tend to suffer sensory overload. Again, there is no general solution, so careful and personalized, consideration is the only wise course.

Another dilemma involves the autonomy, the freedom and the privacy of residents (especially in treatment- and long-stay homes) versus the necessity of supervision, intervention and (mild) coercion. This type of dilemma often is easier to resolve than it seems at first glance. Below the age of about 14 it’s hardly an issue because supervision of responsible adults then is obviously required at that young age. An example is an enclosed, centrally located courtyard which can be visually monitored by staff through abundant windows.

Supervision versus privacy is at issue in the case of all recommendations involving ‘sightlines’. They allow constant supervision, which is at odds with private withdrawal possibilities – and more so with creating one’s own ‘secret space’. In practice, however, such private spaces can very often easily be supervised in a manner which ensures both safety and privacy, for instance by monitoring entrances and exits discreetly.

These types of dilemma bear some resemblance but differ from contradictory recommendations which mainly arise around the senses. There one often has to choose ‘the lesser evil’.


the rule

This rule is applied by the Autism Center Leo Kannerhuis (see the acknowledgements) for a  number of decisions, such as the degree of confinement and the intensity of therapy’s.
Fuchs et.al.
Fuchs, Angelika, Rhea Harbers, Rosita Steltenpool, SAMEN! Passende huisvesting voor passend onderwijs, Bussum, THOTH, 2012.