Finding your way around a bustling city can be difficult – and it can be even trickier if you suffer from autism.
The condition affects people in a variety of ways, but it is characterised by deficits in language and social skills, making tasks such as shopping, asking for directions, planning a route and navigating crowded areas testing.
Now one architecture student has taken a fresh look at town planning in a bid to create more accessible urban environments that are inclusive of people with autism, like her brother.
Can we design a building that makes life easier for people with autism? A place where autistic children can learn more easily and develop with less stress?
According to architect Magda Mostafa, the answer is yes. And creating these kinds of places, she says, can reveal important lessons about how people are impacted by architecture. Based in Cairo, Mostafa was approached to help design a school for children with autism and other special needs. Her involvement with that project, the Advance Special Needs Education Center, led her to develop the Autism ASPECTSS Design Index, a unique tool that assesses architectural environments for people with autism. It was developed with the input of teachers, parents, and caregivers and is now being applied to other projects internationally.
Dimensions, a non-profit group providing services that support people with autism and learning disabilities, recently conducted an online poll asking the public what type of business they most wanted to be inclusive and accessible to people with autism. 250 people responded to the poll. Restaurants were voted as the place most people would like to see made more accessible with 32% of people making it their preferred choice. Supermarkets received 27% of the vote, followed by leisure centres (17%), shops (10%) theatres (9%), events such as firework displays or sporting events (4%) and banks with 1% of the vote.
Dimensions lists the following steps for making a business accessible to people with autism:
- – Autism awareness training for staff
- – Improved sign-posting of seating areas, payment desks and toilets
- – Flexibility to alter the lighting or music volume upon request
- – Accurate waiting times given to customers
- – Wider varieties of gluten and casein free food for people on specific diets
- – Ability to ‘queue jump’ if needed to minimise difficulties in waiting for long periods of time
- – Autism friendly times/days where alterations are made to suit the needs of someone that experiences autism
An example of an inclusive event can be seen in the autism friendly film screenings that Dimensions organizes with ODEN theaters across the UK. It is common for people with autism to have a heightened awareness and sensitivity to lights, smells, taste, touch and sound. This sensitivity can transform a typical outing to a movie theater into an intense and anxiety causing experience for someone with autism. The autistic friendly film screenings limit sensory-overload by keeping the lights on low, turning down the volume, and not showing trailers, which are often full of flashing lights and loud special effects. Movie goers are also allowed to take their own familiar food and drinks into the theater, and to move around the cinema if they want to. The film screenings allow families to go to the movies together, knowing that everyone can enjoy the experience.
In 2002, Magda Mostafa, a then-PhD student at Cairo University, was given an exciting project: to design Egypt’s first educational centre for autism. The young architect set herself down to the task of researching into autism design, certain she’d soon find guidelines and accessibility codes to direct her through the process (after all, about one in every 88 children is estimated to fall into the autism spectrum).
Last week we looked at the different sensory sensitive approaches to lighting design for autism. We saw how contradictory recommendations have arisen from a lack of reliable research specific to autism and lighting. Conflicting recommendations are not limited to lighting. They can be found among nearly every aspect of autism design, including but not limited to acoustics, tactile and olfactory design. Today we will look at spatial considerations before we turn to the “neuro-typical” approach that contradicts the sensory sensitive approach altogether.