Autistic Sensitive Design

Autistic Sensitive DesignDesigning spaces for people with autism means taking extra steps to address their complex needs.  Autistic children are often sensitive to bright light, unpredictable sounds, heat, obsession with detail over the bigger picture, order, sameness, stimulation, stability and calm. By carefully considering the many needs of children on the spectrum, Dickinson + Partners designs spaces that celebrate the child, while supporting this diversity of need.

Designers of spaces for autistic children should consider the nine design standards and solutions, as identified by the professional community that serves children with autism.

  • Flexible and adaptable furnishings, spatial arrangements and lighting solutions allow children to engage in a range of activities that foster their development and learning.

  • Non-threatening and welcoming layouts promote a feeling of warmth, while fostering communication, and relationships. High perching spots (child balconies) and low, enclosed spaces above and at floor level, shallow enough so a teacher can monitor children.

  • Children often benefit from sensory elements that are soft, such as beanbag chairs, stuffed couches, carpeting, swings, clay, and water. Every environment a child enters at school should provide sensory opportunities for exploration.

  • Designs and furnishings for children on the spectrum should limit or decrease sensory overload. By eliminating nonessential visual materials and blocking out temporary distractions with screens and window shades, children are able to focus more on learning.

  • Decreasing noise in the environment, smells, and visual distractions goes a long way to help students focus.

  • When a child understands his or her environment, emotional security rises and the child feels an increased sense of control. Designers can use creative ways to increase predictability in a learning environment through evident paths, activity pockets, neighborhood-like districts (named hallways or color-coded zones), bold and memorable edges (murals, half walls or fences) and landmarks (a sculpture, indoor garden or aquarium). Signs, numbering systems and clear views can also lead to a sense of predictability.

  • Personal space is often more of a priority for these children, than for a typically developing child. They feel more comfortable and in control when they have a transition zone between private and public spaces.

  • Emotional safety can be increased through transparency in windows and doorways to ease transitions and make a child feel safe. For children, this provides a place to wave goodbye to parents; for older students, transparency provides a sense of protection when they know others can see them.  Small, enclosed spaces tend to enhance feelings of closeness, intimacy, and safety.

  • Feeling truly at home in their surroundings will allow children to relax and retain more information.  Adding softer lighting and home furnishings can help.  Colors suited for homes (warmer hues, skin tones and pastels), soft furnishings, interesting textures, thoughtfully placed works of art, and plants and objects from the natural world can turn a conventional classroom into a cozy, home-like environment.