We propose the new concept – “lee-places” – for those places which represent a space in between the withdrawal places used to get away from social and general stimuli and the places right in the middle of such activity.
‘Lee’ is a naval term, meaning ‘out of the wind’. The lee-side of a ship is the side below the wind, hence the term ‘leeway’; the sideways drift of a ship caused by wind where one can maneuver freely without sailing against the wind.
(Since many Dutch naval terms have found their way into the English language – pump, sloop and skipper – we might as well add another. See Wikipedia about them.)
Lee-places are spaces where one can be at the margin of groups and group-activities, which leaves room to participate or to withdraw as such a need is determined by the individual. The individual should be able to follow the conversation and whatever activity is taking place, but not in a way which obliges him or her to actively participate. The choice to participate should be up to the person in the ‘lee-position’ who is empowered to take or leave whatever social activity is at hand.
Lee-places can be found or installed with minimal effort almost anywhere: in group- and living rooms, in the classroom, in the gym, even on playgrounds; it could be a fixed place in the corner of the living room, it could be behind a folding screen, on a chair or a rug with a small table and a reading lamp where one retreats. Such a fixed place creates possibilities for the individual to learn how to communicate or interact with others from the safety of a self-controlled space.
Ahrentzen & Steel make much the same point when they say about residential places where people on the spectrum live together: “A common area should include active and quiet spaces within one contiguous larger space: people with autism often do not prefer to be alone, seeking instead proximity to others rather than active engagement. Window seats and nooks offer opportunities to participate from the periphery.”
The principle behind lee-places is well illustrated by a conversation Iain Scott had with a head teacher about a withdrawal place at school. The teacher told Scott: “At one point, the architects had proposed a withdrawal room or ‘snoozelin’, where a child could withdraw and calm down if things got too much. We rejected that as we felt that would have been a failing in itself. We wanted the children to have the opportunity to withdraw, but still remain within the social fabric of the school…”
A good piece in the New York Times discussed a number of design challenges when building apartments for people on the spectrum, among which this one:
“A bigger design challenge was to see a house through the eyes of an autistic client. For example, the layout of all four dwellings is identical: a neighbor’s place should feel like home. And multiple seating options encourage an individual to be near the action without necessarily plunging into the fray.” (My italics)
Isn’t this a great definition of lee-places in a living room?