By Maria Luigia Assirelli Dott. Arch (Rome) ARB
Partner, GA Architects

Where it all began

I answered an advertisement in the Evening Standard in 2005 for a job with GA Architects. The words that caught my interest were ‘...design for autism’.

I got the job and was more than happy when I found myself working on a specialist teaching unit for fifteen pupils with ASD which was to be built as an extension to a mainstream school in Twickenham. Up to this point I knew little about autism and even less about something called autism-friendly environments. But I was lucky enough to find myself working with Christopher Beaver who, in the autumn of 2003, had written an article for Communication(the magazine of the NAS now known as Your Autism Magazine) called Breaking The Mould.

At the time this was ground-breaking material and has since been all around the world. It is still quoted by many others who write about autism and how the environment can have such an influence on behaviour. Up to this time, there was little recognition that an environment designed specifically to create a calm, non-stimulating, spacious and safe environment for ASD could be so influential in terms of that sense of well-being that is essential to us all.

In this article I will be looking at the far greater awareness of the importance of autism-friendly design that I believe exists now compared with 2005 when I first started to specialise in this field.

The needs of providers

What we found over and over again was that those whose job it was to care for or teach young people with ASD found themselves in wholly unsuitable buildings and didn’t know where to begin in terms of finding or briefing an architect to refurbish, extend or build new buildings for them. As Christopher wrote in one of his articles: "But the heart of the brief cannot be written down. It has to come from an understanding of the autistic mind; the things that are comforting and give a sense of security, a feeling of space where there are places for being alone and for socialising, an easily understood geography with no threatening or over-stimulating features. This understanding can only come with time and patient observation of how children and carers interact."

We had one rather frustrated client who came to us and said "I don’t want an architect who asks me what I want; I want someone who tells me what I need". So between the client who wanted to be told and the architect who has no experience to draw on, there was an abyss into which most projects fell – yet another building that was not fit for purpose. We heard this story repeatedly.

How to move forward?

In the years since the publication of Breaking the Mould, GA Architects have concentrated on the development of autism-friendly environments by way of built projects, contributing articles to specialist journals, speaking at conferences, collaborating on research projects and holding twice yearly seminars at which specialists in various fields have been invited to give presentations on different aspects of building design that contribute to a constantly improving environment for autistic people. Contributors have included distinguished speakers such as Professor Francesca Happé on cognitive theories that can be applied to the learning environment, Dr Tamara Brookes on furniture and finishes, Professor Hilary Dalke on colour and Dr John Biddulph (himself on the spectrum) on his own experiences of living and working in unsuitable environments. Other speakers have given presentations on acoustics, sensory gardens, security, lighting, heating and ventilating and so on. There are many more topics still to come and we are always interested in knowing what potential delegates would like to hear discussed. The focus of these seminars is to hear from the floor in open discussion what environmental problems are still concerning teachers and carers. It is a constant two-way learning process.

Is progress being made?

Whitton ASD Teaching Unit

This has all developed into a fascinating outpouring of experiences, problems, opinions and theories which add to the evolving knowledge of how to design environments for ASD. That is our mission and if the ever increasing numbers of applications to attend the seminars is anything to go by, the message must be getting through. It is also encouraging that a number of architects have applied to attend the seminars although for the benefit of any architects reading this, it is worth noting that we will be running seminars in the future aimed specifically at architects and other construction professionals.

Yes, I believe progress is being made. There is a far greater awareness of the need for autism-friendly environments and, indeed, we get requests for help from all over the world. Most recently we have advised architects in America on the design of a residential programme and a young student in Indonesia who is working with architects there to develop a small rural school for twelve pupils with ASD. It is as though the world has come alive and is bent on improving environmental conditions. My private theory is that there is an awareness that we are all sensitive to our environment and that we identify with the problems experienced by those with ASD and realise that if the right environment is good for them, it will be good for us too.

Some of the issues

I am going to conclude this article by touching on a number of the issues that come up regularly:

  • Inclusive design: We should aim to make our buildings suitable for as many different user groups as possible. This will include the principal user, carers, teachers, parents, visitors, cleaning and maintenance staff, wheelchair users etc.
  • BREEAM: This stands for British Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method  and is a method for assessing a building’s success in meeting a number of sustainable criteria so that it can be given one of five ratings from Pass to Outstanding. The appointment of a BREEAM assessor will add to the cost of the building but is not obligatory although a good rating carries its own prestige. BREEAM can be applied to any building and is not specific to environments for ASD. I mention it here because there is increasing interest in environmental issues and it often comes up at our seminars and presentations.
  • Designing for individuals: We are all different and whilst there are a number of characteristics commonly displayed by children and adults with ASD, it is impossible to design for each individual. It is common ground between carers and teachers that whilst we architects may design a building that works reasonably well for 90% of the children or adults for which it is intended, there will be 10% that will require a degree of ‘tailoring’. We can never know, before they are there, who will occupy our buildings so this is a common problem that can only be addressed at the time.
  • Circulation spaces: Since 2005 we have openly campaigned to ban the corridor on the grounds that they are noisy, encourage ‘running opportunities’ and force people too close together so that they suffer anxiety. Instead we have circulation spaces which recognise the concept of ‘proxemics’ (the space we need around us to feel comfortable which tends to be more in the case of people with ASD). A well designed circulation space provides the means by which we can get from A to B whilst providing opportunities for other activities such as various types of play, story-telling, places to sit alone or to socialise in groups. It has been fascinating to observe how children will invent different ways of exploiting these spaces and the pleasure they derive from this new independence.
  • Feedback studies: There is nothing new about what the industry calls ‘post-occupancy evaluation assessments’. Properly prepared these can provide an invaluable source of information concerning the aspects of the building that work well or not so well. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, how do we get it right next time? But it is not just a case of asking the right questions but asking the right people; carers, teachers, psychologists, occupational therapists, cleaning and maintenance staff and anyone else with an involvement in running, managing and maintaining the building.
  • How far do we go? There are some providers and carers who say we do too much to create the right environment for those with autism; too much in the sense that if you over-provide you over-protect which leaves an individual exposed to the dangers of the outside world. Maybe there is a fine line between the specialised environment and the environment that most of us live in where we experience trip hazards, hot water that comes out of taps, surfaces ideal for self-harming, windows with glass that will shatter if attacked and a whole host of dangers regularly encountered in buildings we inhabit every day of the week. The Building Regulations (with its Part M for access and facilities for disabled people) demand a standard of safety in buildings but stop far short of setting a standard suitable for buildings to be inhabited by those with ASD.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that in the five years since I have been specialising in autism-friendly design, a far wider awareness of the needs of those with ASD has developed. It is interesting that this awareness has spread from providers and carers to other groups such as builders. I was very struck, when talking to a large contracting organisation who is involved, as are we, in the Government’s Building Schools for the Future initiative that they had an intimate knowledge of the need for autism-friendly environments and what the ingredients were.

The publication of Building Bulletin 102 (Department for Children, Schools and Families) dealing with Special Educational Needs is further evidence of the realisation that our buildings have to be fit for purpose.