‘Zoning’ is a theme under the chapter ‘architectural spaces’. (See The recommendations.) Zoning is about the ordering of functions and activities according to the amount of stimuli they cause and the concentration they demand.
All seven articles we designated ‘core literature’ about architecture for people on the spectrum put physical and visual structure first.
Zoning is a specific elaboration of these. As far as we know, this concept (distinct from its meaning as used in urban planning) was first introduced in 2008 by Magda Mostafa and subsequently adopted by Khare & Mullick, Ahrentzen & Steele and others.
We quote Mostafa’s main remarks in full:
“This discussion brings us to conclude that the autistic user identifies the architectural environment around him or her in accordance to sensory zoning rather than conventional functional zoning. Spatial groupings could follow autistic logic and involve sensorial compatible functions. These groupings can be accessed through a one-way circulation system, emphasizing, as well as capitalizing on, routine, as discussed previously. For example high-stimulus functions like music, art, crafts and psychomotor therapy, requiring a high level of alertness can be grouped together, while low-stimulus functions like speech therapy, one to one instruction and general classrooms, requiring a high level of focus, can be grouped together. Services, which are usually high stimulus, including bathrooms, kitchens, staffrooms and administration, should be separated. Only those requiring student accesses should be grouped near the high-stimulus zones and as far as possible from the low-stimulus zones.”
“The application of the concept of sensory zoning could also reduce the problems of distraction and diversion. Keeping the sensory atmosphere of each area as coherent as possible, could allow a more continuous circulation from one space to another. Through the preliminary structured interviews conducted during this research, it seemed that when the autistic child veers off course when moving from one space to another it is not a question of getting lost but rather a question of being distracted along the way. Some parents and teachers even found the visual recollection skills of their children to provide them with an excellent basis for navigation. It was their distractibility by the surrounding sensory environment that prevented them from reaching their destination. Sensory atmospheric coherence through design may help to reduce this distraction.”
“When moving to or from an area of high sensory stimulus, the use of sensory “transition zones”, in the form of gardens or sensory curriculum areas, may help to prepare the child for such a move with minimal distraction. It is hoped that such an arrangement would allow the child a form of sensory calibration, in order to make the transition from these varying sensory zones more fluid hence allowing improvement of navigational skills.”
A graphic representation of zoning can be found in this interview with Magda Mostafa.
She continues with a proposal to enhance zoning and circulation using visual cues which is a separate theme on this website.
Zoning may apply to an entire building or part of it, but can also be implemented on a smaller scale such as a classroom, in which context it’s also called ‘compartmentalization’ or ‘spatial sequencing’. On that scale Mostafa carried out a unique zoning-experiment.
As elaborated here, ‘zoning’ is a new concept. In practice however, quite some differentiation in and adjacent to classrooms is already present, particularly in Special Education. Often, such varied arrangements are sufficient for autistic students, in other cases additional zoning is necessary.
The autism characteristics which make zoning a salutary intervention don’t receive much attention in the literature. Central coherence problems are at the center, as emphasized by Mostafa. One can easily imagine why this would be so: someone who tries to construct a whole out of details will have less trouble when these details are straightforward and one-fold.