This information is drawn from an interview with Dr Magda Mostafa, a world leading expert on designing built environments for autism, that first appeared in Your Autism Magazine, Vol 49(2), Summer 2015.
Designs for living
How a space feels, sounds, looks, smells and functions can be incredibly influential on how many people with autism experience the world. Dr Magda Mostafa is a special needs design associate at Progressive Architects and developed the first ever design framework on the subject over a decade ago. We asked her why getting architectural and interior design right is so important and how things have moved on since then.
“The concept of sensory environment is still central to the process of autism-friendly design. Discussion continues in autism literature about how sensory perception links to behaviour. This feeds into the ongoing conversations around how to create environments for people with autism in the design world.
“In the last decade, the main shift in attitudes I've seen relate to a general rise in autism awareness. In general people are now better informed. It seems to me a growing population of individuals and families with autism have gained a voice. Organisations like the NAS are central to this shift, and to expanding the conversation about specialist design beyond just schools and learning environments into homes and workplaces as well.”
“Legislation also has an effect. Attention towards the importance of autism-specific design grows as health insurance and education policies worldwide expand to include autism within their requisite coverage.”
“There is still a lack of awareness about how much environment can affect people with autism, and architects are often unaware of the need to bring in specialists. In addition, because autism is an extremely complex condition which affects each person differently, autism-friendly design requires a conceptual framework to be interpreted rather than a set of hard-and-fast rules, which is what architects are used to when designing for people with disabilities. Few user groups are in more need of the possibilities offered by effective architecture than those with challenges and special needs, and no group among those can benefit more from the sensory input that the built environment provides, than those with autism.”
DR MOSTAFA's ASPECTSS™© Design Index sets out her framework for autism-friendly design. They can be applied on a smaller scale at home, as well as by professionals.
Control acoustics to minimise background noise, echo and reverberation to suit the individual and level of focus required. Use sound to aid transition.
Design spaces in a logical order based on use to support routine and predictability. Use one-way circulation so people can move between activities as seamlessly as possible with minimal distraction.
Provide space for respite from the overstimulation of the environment. This might be a small, partitioned area or crawl space in a quiet section of a room or building. Make the sensory environment neutral and customisable.
Organise a space or building into compartments with clear functions and sensory qualities which help define the use. Separate spaces using furniture, floor covering, floor level or lighting.
Using transition zones helps the individual recalibrate their senses as they move from one level of stimulus to the next. These spaces may be anything from a distinct node that indicates a shift, to a full sensory room.
Organise spaces according to their sensory quality. This means grouping spaces into ‘high-stimulus’ and ‘low-stimulus’ areas with transition zones aiding the shift from one zone to the next.
Safety is especially key for people who may have an altered sense of their environment. Alterations might include using hot water safety fittings and avoiding sharp edges and corners.