Generous space standards

Generous space standards may be required for several reasons when building for people with autism.  A primary factor is the requirement for generous amounts of ‘personal space’ due to the possible distress people on the spectrum experience through touch, smell, sounds and the presence other people. Extra space is also needed when people have vestibular problems with balance and orientation in space and/or proprioceptive issues, which together may result in bodily clumsiness. (See the 7 senses.) Such clumsiness often results in collisions with furniture, doors, walls etc., unless extra space is provided.

A colleague at the Dutch Dr. Leo Kannerhuis, center for autism, notes:
“In the circumstance of a “too-limited” space, stimuli are closer to the person with autism. The social information per cubic yard is high in that case. This leads to overstimulation and raises stress levels. In case there is sufficient space, the concentration of social information is lower which gives rise to less stimuli, better stimulus processing, more successful interactions, more positive feed-back, a more positive self-image, and so on.”

‘Generous space standards’ are strongly argued in five of the seven articles provisionally designated as the core literature.  Khare & Mullick are rather outspoken on this matter, providing several arguments:

  • it helps deal with social stimuli comfortably
  • it avoids overcrowding
  • the increased quantity of facilities reduce waiting.

Simon Humphreys also emphasizes the importance of personal space; introducing the concept of ‘proxemics’:
“Proxemics is defined as the branch of knowledge which deals with the amount of space that people feel is necessary to set between themselves. Proximity is the condition of being near or close. This personal space surrounds the body.”

Most people guard this space to some degree. This is different in different cultures. In the United States, for instance, the interpersonal distance between two people engaged in conversation is twice that of Japanese in Japan. With autism, this personal space can be greater and more sensitive. Over the course of a normal day, this space is often infringed upon. In a building, spaces are defined by ceilings and walls. If they are too close, the space is limited. To provide generous circulation, generous allotments for space in an environment help reduce “the impact of this infringement”.

One of Lindsey Nebekers nine ingredients for a successful relationship is ‘respecting each others personal space’: “For a couple with autism, space is not overrated. Inside the living space, it is essential to dedicate at least one area per person inside the living space to retreat to when he/she wants to be alone. Having our own dedicated personal space allows us to maintain the lifestyles we were previously used to.”

McAllister & Maguire make a number of recommendations which are almost ‘evidence based’, concerning younger autistic children in special education. According to them “Those with ASD often require greater personal space around them in which to feel comfortable in comparison to others.” They advise classrooms for this group in which there is approximately 10 square meters, excluding storage and toilets, per pupil.

Finally, note, however, that people with autism may be just as likely to need small, contained, spaces.