Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders
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Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Kristi Gaines, Angela Bourne, Michelle Pearson, Mesha Kleibrink

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eBook - ePub

Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Kristi Gaines, Angela Bourne, Michelle Pearson, Mesha Kleibrink

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About This Book

Winner of the 2017 IDEC Book Award, 2017 EDRA Great Places Award (Book Category), 2017 American Society of Interior Designers Joel Polsky Prize and the 2016 International Interior Design Association TXOK Research Award

Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders explains the influence of the natural and man-made environment on individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other forms of intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD). Drawing on the latest research in the fields of environmental psychology and education, the authors show you how architecture and interior spaces can positively influence individuals with neurodiversities by modifying factors such as color, lighting, space organization, textures, acoustics, and ventilation. Now you can design homes, therapeutic environments, work environments, and outdoor spaces to encourage growth and learning for the projected 500, 000 children with ASD (in the United States alone) who are expected to reach adulthood by 2024.

Topics discussed include:
-Environmental design theories
-Symptoms of ASD
-Sensory processing deficits
-Design needs of individuals on the spectrum at all ages
-Design methods and solutions for spaces, including residential, learning, work, and therapeutic environments encompassing a wide range of budgets
-Designing for self-actualization, well-being, and a high quality of life for the duration of an individual's life
-Avenues for healthy living and aging in place
-Biophilic design
-Environmental impact on well-being
-Strategies to promote active living as an integral part of the welfare focus.

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Part 1 Beginnings

DOI: 10.4324/9781315856872-1

Chapter 1 Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

DOI: 10.4324/9781315856872-2
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders are part of a growing population that is usually ignored in design. The needs of those with ASD are excluded entirely from all building codes and design guidelines.1 This is a serious concern, since these individuals are more sensitive to their physical surroundings than the average person. When an individual is unable to understand or adapt to their environment, negative behaviors typically ensue.2 Although the surrounding environment has such a strong influence over people with ASD, there is very little information on how to design spaces for these individuals.
Another prominent challenge involved in designing spaces for individuals with ASD is that no two cases are alike. ASD is referred to as a spectrum disorder because each individual has different symptoms, different sensitivities, and a different level of functioning.3 Symptoms vary from mild to severe; some children on the spectrum have intellectual disabilities or impaired speech, while others do not.4 Ideally, spaces would be designed for each individual case and the space would accommodate each unique symptom but also help individuals with ASD build a tolerance to environmental stimuli. McCallister states that environments for individuals on the spectrum should prepare them for the challenges and problems they will face in everyday life: “Cocooning the ASD pupil from all external factors will not necessarily help them reach their full potential in life.”5 Therefore, designers should not overly cater to users with ASD and create unrealistic environments that will leave them unprepared to face other environments.
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are particularly sensitive to the surrounding environment, primarily because of sensory processing deficits. For many, sensory processing deficits, such as sensitive eyesight or hearing, can make the built environment a distracting and even frightening place. In her autobiography, Temple Grandin described autism as “seeing the world through a kaleidoscope and trying to listen to a radio station that is jammed with static at the same time. Add to that a broken volume control, which causes the volume to jump erratically from a loud boom to inaudible.”6 Many individuals on the spectrum employ coping mechanisms in the form of rigid and repetitive behaviors to deal with incoming sensory stimuli. To an outsider, these behaviors appear like an inappropriate tantrum when in actuality, they are the result of an “imbalance between the environment and an individual’s ability to adapt to it.”7 Architecture and interior spaces can be modified to positively influence the behavior individuals with ASD often exhibit by modifying factors such as color, texture, sense of closure, orientation, acoustics, ventilation, etc.8


Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. Individuals with ASD are identified as having difficulty with social interaction, communication skills, and as having a small range of interests.9 IQ levels of individuals on the spectrum can vary in range from gifted to severe mental disabilities. At the mild end of the spectrum, ASD may be nearly indistinguishable from the general public. These individuals are commonly referred to as high functioning. Others with ASD exhibit severe or life-threatening behaviors. Self-injurious behavior is uncommon in individuals with ASD, but may include head banging or biting oneself.10
According to recent reports, cases of Autism Spectrum Disorders are on the rise. Some of the more recent statistics indicate that one in 68 children is diagnosed with ASD.11 This number has risen from approximately three per 1,000 children in the 1990s.12 Similar increases have also been documented in Japan, Europe, and the UK.13,14 Whether the increase is due to ASD becoming more prevalent or because autism awareness and detection has broadened is unknown. Some researchers believe the rise is because the diagnostic criteria for ASD now include pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and Asperger’s syndrome.15 Whatever the reason, the increase in reported cases qualifies as a serious public health concern.16 Some fear the rise in cases could lead to an ASD epidemic.17 There are a variety of treatments but, at present, no known cure. Experts do not yet fully understand how or why the disorder even occurs.

Sensory Processing

Individuals with ASD often have abnormal responses to incoming sensory information from the surrounding environment. Typically, people receive information about a space based on all of their senses collectively: smell, sight, taste, sound, and touch. This ability is known as sensory integration and is essential to achieve a coherent perception of a situation and to decide how to act.18 However, people with ASD have deficits in sensory integration due to the inability to process information from several senses at once. This may be manifested through being hyper-sensitive to stimuli or being hypo-sensitive (under-reactive) to stimuli. Rapid shifting of attention between two different stimuli is difficult, and abnormal sensory processing can cause individuals with ASD to demonstrate unusual behaviors. Additionally, a dysfunction in this sensory integration may result in language delays and academic under-achievement.19,20,21 There are some reports of sensory perception deficits in which sounds are perceived as smells or colors.22

Hypo- and Hyper-sensitivity

Generally, individuals with ASD are either hypo-sensitive or hypersensitive to certain information pertaining to smell, sight, taste, sound, or touch. There are also instances of hyper- or hypo-sensitivities in vestibular movement and proprioception, or the ability to sense the position of the body in space. Hypo-sensitive cases appear to be under-responsive, as if certain sensory information goes unnoticed or certain senses are impaired. Young children who were later diagnosed with ASD and had hypo-sensitive auditory tendencies were often thought to be deaf as infants.23 Hypo-sensitive cases are often qualified as “sensory-seeking,” meaning they often create or generate their own sensory experiences either for pleasure or to block out other unpleasant stimuli. Conversely, hyper-sensitive cases are over-responsive to sensory stimuli. Children with hyper-sensitivity can be easily overwhelmed by incoming sensory information. The environment can be terrifying at times because loud or sudden noises feel physically painful to hypersensitive individuals.24 Some experts believe that this kind of sensory overload is experienced more among individuals with Asperger’s syndrome than other individuals on the spectrum.25 A common occurrence among people with ASD is the inability to use all of the senses at one time and when attempting to use more than one sense, senso...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders
APA 6 Citation
Gaines, K., Bourne, A., Pearson, M., & Kleibrink, M. (2016). Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Gaines, Kristi, Angela Bourne, Michelle Pearson, and Mesha Kleibrink. (2016) 2016. Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Gaines, K. et al. (2016) Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Gaines, Kristi et al. Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.