Social integration of people on the spectrum: the promise of autism-friendly design

Social integration of people on the spectrum: the promise of autism-friendly design

The other day Paul Whiteley discussed a few studies here on his great blog “Questioning answers” about participation of people on the spectrum in higher education and employment. A central finding is that more than three quarters of those who found a place in education and/or at a job don’t last.

This is an extremely important issue of course since it’s at the heart of social integration of people on the spectrum. What is lacking in this discussion – I know this may sound like self-promotion and in a way it is too – is interest in a big detail: the physical environment in which study and work take place. Crowded places which are noisy, have insufficient ventilation and temperature control and in which one is forced into unprepared social contact with others are just a few barriers people on the spectrum come up against – and prove insurmountable by an unknown number of them.
Maybe I overlooked it, but in Paul’s article and the literature he cites, I don’t find a word about this aspect.

Presently I’m reading a classic book about environmental psychology, The Hidden Dimension, by the late Edward T. Harris (1966). He argues convincingly that space has a structure not unlike language. The way neurotypicals  have shaped the physical world contains all kinds of largely unconscious messages and, like language, has a structure which determines the way we experience the world. Isn’t it extremely likely that, given all the trouble many people on the spectrum have with the symbolic world and understanding double meanings etc., they would also experience similar troubles in the man-made physical world?

There are many other properties of buildings and their interior design which bring out autistic difficulties. Take a different bodily awareness in space for instance. Or the way brains process orientation in space which is most probably hampered by faulty top-down imaging because of Central Coherence problems which are pretty common in people on the spectrum. Many of them loose their way – sometimes every day in the same school building. And then of course there’s a host of sensory peculiarities among which over- and under-sensitivity to temperature, smells, noise, certain colors and a lot of other aspects of light such as glare or direct sunlight – and so forth and so on.

All these things are pretty well documented. Serious attempts, however, to apply this type of knowledge to the physical environment are almost entirely absent. Worse even, the awareness there are problems to be solved in this domain is close to zero. Architects, designers, administrators and employers who are responsible for schools, places of work and other buildings might have heard of ‘universal design’ and even underwrite its principles. However, a few true hero’s aside, they never seem to pay attention to anything beyond wheelchair accessibility at best. (Which, of course, has my full support.)

Paul focused on this sentence: “Although two-thirds of adults with autism spectrum disorder participated in competitive employment/postsecondary education during the study, fewer than 25% maintained these activities over the study period.” So 75% dropped out.
How much could this latter percentage be lowered through adaptive design? I don’t think anyone has a clue. It might be 5 or 60%. But even the lowest estimate of 5%, would signify a 20% increase in the number of autistic people who will keep their job and education, being a group who – like any other – needs this desperately. While ‘society’ needs this just as urgently, because of the social and monetary costs of having a sizable segment of the population dependent on benefits while excluding them from the productive contribution to society they are able and willing to make.

In other words, this avenue for integrating people on the spectrum into mainstream society is both extremely underdeveloped and extremely promising.
All I can say is I’m doing all I can on this website, hoping one day this will turn from an uphill battle to being seen for what it really is: a win-win deal.

*Central Coherence

Most if not all terms mentioned here are explained on this site, just use the search function.