Editor's note: This post is a lead-in to a sponsored story you will find published in our April issue about Lamin-Arts’ new Solid Colors collection. Towards the end of 2014, Lamin-Art published a whitepaper called Impact of Interior Design on Autistic Adults and Children. “We took a special interest in the topic after NeoCon, when we first listened to Randy Fiser, CEO of ASID, speak on the topic,” said Hans Mutzke, Design Director at Lamin-Art. “Since surfaces like laminates and veneers can create soothing atmospheres by use of color or texture, we found it critical to understand Autism Design more thoroughly.” The research they had presented in the whitepaper was such a perfect continuation of the themes from our Science of Design issue, we couldn’t resist sharing it here!
Autism Design is a relatively new design movement, built on a foundation of principles (which we have seen throughout the month of February in our Science of Design coverage) that focus on the effect design has on perception and behavior. Interior designers can improve the well-being and livelihoods of autistic individuals by following a few simple guidelines to achieve a soothing a stimulating environment.
Before designers can fully grasp Autism Design, they must first understand autism: a complex developmental disability that can cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the fastest-growing disability in the U.S., according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as of 2008. According to the CDC, about 1 in 88 children have been identified with autism in 2014—up from 1 in 68 in 2012. Autism includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive development disorder, and Asperger syndrome. Now, each diagnosis is defined under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Often indiscernible by appearance, individuals with autism have difficulties with social, emotional, and communication skills. They may repeat certain behaviors and might not want to change their daily activities. Autistic individuals also have different ways of learning, paying attention, and reacting to their surroundings.
Think of how you experience the world—it’s through touch, smell, and sight. Now imagine each of those senses were heightened, so when you walked into an unfamiliar space, it was like walking into a sensory minefield. For people born with autism, walking into a room that isn’t designed thoughtfully can further challenge—or at times hinder—their ability to interact or relax in a space.Autism Design Guidelines
In 2009, Dr. Sherry Ahrentzen and Dr. Kimberly Steele published a research study titled “Advancing Full Spectrum Housing: Design for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder” that established a new approach to how the A+D community could provide, design, and develop homes for autistic people—and much of the thinking is equally applicable to commercial settings like hospitals and educational facilities.
Ahrentzen and Steele created the following 17 design guidelines with the understanding that not all of the elements are required for an interior environment to be successful. “Context is important to consider in designing places that are not only suitable but strive for advancing aspirations of occupants—it’s not simply a point-blank translation from one setting to another,” they warn. Rather, the intention is to use these guidelines as a foundation to identify design elements that will best address the specific needs and aspirations of people with autism.
Selecting the right neighborhood and site is a critical first step in developing housing for people with ASDs. Issues to consider include access to amenities and transportation and the potential for residents to be integrated into existing community.
2. Floor Plan Strategies
Space planning should encourage choice, autonomy and independence for residents. Attention to connectivity within the floor plan and its impact on wayfinding will lead to a more effective use of all household spaces.
3. Outdoor Spaces
Secure, shaded outdoor areas offer opportunities for residents to tend gardens and socialize.
4. Living/Community Rooms
Living rooms should provide residents with a variety of options.
Provide ample counter space to accommodate multiple users and independent living aides (e.g. computers) facilitates residents’ success and satisfaction.
6. Hallways, Stairs, and Ramps
Treat these as opportunities for socializing; provide seating space.
Individual bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, adequate storage, and a desk provide residents with privacy and dignity.
8. Sensory Rooms
Providing a separate room that allows residents to control the atmosphere leads to decreased stress and anxiety.
At least one bathroom per unit should be fully accessible to accommodate residents with varying levels of mobility.
10. Laundry Room
Each unit should include a bright laundry room with a large folding area and accessible appliances
Technology should be unobtrusive, easy to use and modify, and fail-safe; it should enhance resident independence and support staff. Privacy issues must be considered before selecting any monitoring technology. In-unit security support systems must also be available for staff.
12. Visual Cues
Individuals with ASDs often experience attention difficulties and stimulus overselectivity. Ameliorate this by keeping visually distracting elements to a minimum. Opt instead to employ appropriate visual cues that assist residents with daily activities.
Adequate ventilation reduces unwanted smells that can negatively affect individuals with hyperreactive (extremely sensitive) sensory processing.
People with autism often experience visual perceptual problems that are exacerbated by lighting conditions. A range of lighting options should be provided with the optimal environment featuring non-glare surfaces, no-flicker bulbs, and lots of natural light controlled by window blinds or other coverings.
People with autism often have underlying health issues that are exacerbated by environmental chemicals. Prevent chronic exposure to indoor air pollutants by selecting durable, nontoxic building materials and finishes. Durability is also a concern.
To accommodate aural sensitiveness, ambient noise levels should be reduced as much as possible. Building systems and appliances designed for quietness should be selected and sound-proofing insulation in ceiling and walls should be increased.
17. Appliances and Textures
Safety controls on appliances are essential since people with autism often experience inattentiveness, high pain thresholds, and the inability to recognize problems. Durability, quietness, and ease of use also are important.
Architects also need to be mindful that not all people with autism are the same. The needs of autistic people vary, especially across different age groups. It’s a big reason why ASID partnered with John Wiley & Sons to create an E-book Design Shorts series that focuses on three life phases for people with autism:
- Interior Design for Autism from Birth to Early Childhood
- Interior Design for Autism from Childhood to Adolescence
- Interior Design for Autism from Adulthood to Geriatrics
All three books were written by A.J. Paron-Wildes, regional architectural and design manager at Allsteel, who has a son with autism. Paron-Wildes has researched best principles on designing for autistic people and has identified ways to eliminate barriers for people with special needs to help make them more successful in their lives. She has worked on hospitals, homes, and other developments for people with autism.
Impact of Design
It’s easy to focus on creating interiors based on the limitations and dislikes of autistic children and adults, but it’s crucial for designers and architects to find a more positive balance when designing, being mindful of the things that may limit or challenge someone with autism while focusing on elements that enable, soothe, and stimulate them.
For instance, some autistic people are great visual learners. Architects and designers can enhance an autistic person’s ability to learn by incorporating visual design strategies throughout an interior environment, such as textures and colors, which help transition users of the space from one area to another throughout the day.
Something as simple as being consistent with furniture arrangements in classrooms can provide visual cues to condition an autistic child to expect and settle easily to the task at hand. That can extend to the sequencing of activities and functions outside of the classroom to the building as a whole. This would involve developing designs emphasizing order, sequence, and routine. Activities could be arranged to follow a schedule, and be clearly visually and spatially defined. The sensory coherence could help student temperament, improve performance, and cut down on calming down time at the start of each session.