Designing for Autism: Lighting

New Struan Centre for Autism © Wardell Armstrong

What do we know about designing for individuals with autism? Those concerned with sensory issues are split on some issues. Some say we should limit daylight and exterior views, keep ceiling heights low and spatial volumes small, use restrained details, subdued colors, and reduce acoustical levels. Others advocate for high ceiling heights, large spatial volumes, and high levels of daylight with plenty of views to the outside. Still others disagree with catering to sensory needs altogether. They point out that individuals with autism struggle generalizing skills, and designing sensory heavens can do more harm than good. Thus they argue for autism classrooms, schools, and homes that mimic all the colors, sounds, lighting, and spatial volumes of “neuro-typical” environments. So who is right?

The truth is we don’t know. With so little architectural research in this area, architects tend to rely on anecdotal evidence or methodically flawed studies. Studies with proper controls and sample sizes simply do not exist. Therefore the purpose of this and subsequent articles is not to promote one approach over the other, but to bring awareness to different ideas and discuss their possible weaknesses and strengths. For the sake of length and depth, this first article, in a series of articles, will only look at the sensory sensitive approach. In addition, this article will be restricted to the issue of lighting. Subsequent articles will explore spatial considerations and the “neuro-typical” approach.

Lighting: Unlike the proponents of the “neuro-typical” approach, the majority in the sensory sensitive camp advocate against the use of direct fluorescent lighting. Some researchers maintain that individuals with autism are more vulnerable to the sub-visible flicker that can cause headaches, eyestrain, and increased repetitive behavior. In particular, Jeremy—a boy with autism described in Newsweek—wets himself within ten minutes of entering a store that uses fluorescent lights. Thus the current consensus against direct fluorescent lighting appears warranted, but reaching an agreement against poorly designed fluorescent lighting is one thing, resolving how to light an autism facility is another.

Most mainstream schools desire natural light. Numerous studies strongly suggest that daylighting aids cognitive abilities and improves overall health. Yet, can these studies be extrapolated to individuals with autism? That is the question many architects are now debating. For example, 3XN, James Vance & Associates Architects, and Fletcher Thompson believe they cannot be extrapolated. Others such as, GA Architects, Simon Humphreys, Haverstock Associates, Penoyre & Prasad, Abdullah Al-Mohaisen and Omar Khattab, and Aitken Turnbull believe they can be extrapolated.

The architecture firm Fletcher Thompson feels autism turns conventional knowledge on its head. “Because of the extreme sensitivity to sensory stimulation,” Fletcher Thompson believes, “clerestory windows and skylights may be counter productive because shifting patterns of daylight can complicate the visual environment.” In lieu of this, Fletcher Thompson believes, the amount and type of visual stimulation should be tightly controlled.

Some evidence within and outside the field of autism supports Fletcher Thompson’s claims. The glare created by sunlight occasionally compromises performance irrespective of autism. In regards to some individuals with autism, the glare, intensity, and contrast may be more distracting and irritating. Professor Olga Bogdashina says, “many autistic people confirm that bright lights and sunshine disturb them and often cause distortions.” For example, while visiting a school for children with autism, Architect David Helfrich of Mackey Mitchel Architects, witnessed a child collapse to the floor and become uncooperative after crossing into a beam of direct sunlight blazing in from a skylight above.

Further building the case against natural lighting, Fletcher Thompson notes, “windows with exterior views may provide autistic students with undesirable distractions.” Following this logic the architects of two autism schools, the Langagerskölen in Århus, Denmark, and the River Street School in Windsor, Connecticut, took great care in subduing daylight and decreasing or eliminating exterior views in the teaching environment. For example, at Langagerskölen, designed by 3XN in 1998, there are only a “few places where children can look in or out a window,” the classrooms not being one of them. In regards to lighting, “The buildings are fitted out with wooden lanterns, functioning as skylights and sidelights. This solution offers bright classrooms, without distracting the children who will often have a low capacity for concentration.”

Langagerskölen © F. Hendriksen

Similarly, James Vance & Associates Architects’ 1989 design of the River Street School tried to “maximize daylighting but avoid high contrast (sun/shadow) and distracting views.” To achieve this James Vance “employed wide window overhangs (over five feet) to minimize strong shadows, and provide high sills (four feet, six inches) to direct the view upward toward the sky and treetops and away from distracting ground level activities.”

Langagerskölen © F. Hendriksen

It is important to note that the River Street School was “more concerned about lighting effects in our classrooms,” and not the school in general, says Tom Parvenski, the school’s director. The measures to prevent views from a seated position and reduce daylight are generally confined to the classroom environment. Parvenski points out that the “gym area does have skylights to allow natural light in.” So, neither the Langagerskölen nor River Street School fit into a categorical box that limits all daylight and exterior views, as Fletcher Thompson seems to recommend, but these two schools stand in sharp contrast to other autism facilities such as the Netley School and the New Struan Centre for Autism.

River Street School © Robert Benson

For example, London’s Netley School, designed by Haverstock Associates, brings daylight into the school with North facing skylights and floor to ceiling windows that nearly span one entire wall of the small school. Likewise, the main circulation space at the New Struan Centre for Autism in Alloa, Scotland, designed by Aitken Turnbull, consists of a glass atrium that floods the space in brilliant sunlight. “The classrooms either side of the atrium have a window wall which provides an unobstructed view into the external play areas on either side.” The classroom design also “incorporates clerestory lighting, with a brise-soeil, which diffuses direct sunlight, throwing it up onto the ceiling.”

River Street School © Robert Benson

There is good reason to believe these architects might be right. Study after study has shown that sunlight and certain types of exterior views improve overall health, increase productivity, and reduce sick days and attrition rates. If these studies directly apply to autism, then the debate is over. If not, the advantages for the staff might still outweigh the possible untested disadvantages for the individuals with autism. Special education/care services are ravaged by high attrition rates. Yet, nearly all the educational programs for individuals with autism depend on consistency, repetition, and structure. A daylighting design that makes even the smallest dent against attrition rates could make a noticeable difference, and be far more beneficial than a subdued environment that causes more staff sick days and higher attrition rates.

Netley School Autistic Resource Base © Dennis Gilbert/View

Both hypotheses, presented here, appear to have valid arguments, but to date there are no studies comparing their effectiveness. There are, however, excellent examples of how they can be studied. Daylighting studies similar to those conducted by the Heschong Mahone Group could be tailored to examine autism in general. Additionally, studies like those featured in Mary Ann Steane and Koen Steemers’s book Environmental Diversity in Architecture could be used to examine how to design for the diversity along the autism spectrum. Conclusive results from studies like these might be quite a ways off, but there are several individuals and firms that are doing the grassroots autism design research needed to inch the profession forward, perhaps most notably Professor Magda Mostafa at American University in Cairo and GA Architects in London. The current research is far from rigorous and methodically flawed. The results are inconclusive at best and misleading at worst, but the effort is a step in the right direction. There are many architects that are eager to design autism schools, but few willing to research them. Hopefully, bringing greater awareness to their efforts will furnish them with the time, funding, and energy to produce studies with the proper controls and sample sizes that can put this debate to rest. Until then, the debate continues.

New Struan Centre for Autism © Wardell Armstrong

If you enjoyed this article check out more by Christopher N. Henry here.

Christopher Henry has been researching, writing, and consulting on autism design since 2005. He has conducted post-occupancy evaluations of autism schools, homes and clinics in Denmark, England, and the US. Christopher also spent 9-months working direct-care at Bittersweet Farms, a residential and vocational facility for adults with autism. He currently runs Autism Design Consultants, where you can find more information about autism design.


Dennis Gilbert/View Robert Benson Wardell Armstrong F. Hendriksen

For some researchers sensory issues remain controversial. See, O’Neil, Meena and Robert Jones. ‘Sensory-Perceptual Abnormalities in Autism: A Case for More Research?’, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 3: 283–93. Also see, Dawson, G. & Watling, R. (2000) ‘Interventions to Facilitate Auditory,Visual, and Motor Integration in Autism: A Review of the Evidence’, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 30 (5): 415–21. Other researchers insist that more current research demonstrates that sensory processing dysfunction persists globally throughout autism. See, Kern, Janet, Madhukar H. Trivedi., Carolyn R. Garver, Bruce D. Grannemann, Alonzo A. Andrews, Jayshree S. Savla, Danny G. Johnson, Jyutika A Mehta, Jennifer L. Schroeder, “Sensory correlations in autism,” Autism, Sage Publications, 2007, Vol. 11(2), p. 123.

Wallis, Claudia. “A Tale of Two Schools.” Time Magazine May 15, 2006 p. 50.

Due to budget constraints and environmental concerns many sensory sensitive design incorporate indirect fluorescent light.

Boyce, Peter R. “The Impact of Light in Buildings on Human Health.” Indoor and Built Environment, February 2010 vol. 19 no. 1 8-20.

Colman RS, Frankel F, Ritvo E, Freeman BJ. “The effects of fluorescent and incandescent illumination upon repetitive behaviors in autistic children” Journal of Autism Childhood Schizophrenia 1976;6:157–162.

Fenton DM, Penney R. “The effects of fluorescent and incandescent lighting on the repetitive behaviours of autistic and intellectually handicapped children,” Australia and New Zealand Journal Developmental Disabilities 1985; 11:137–141.

It should be noted that The research surrounding fluorescent lights remains in question and the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, a European Union committee that assesses of risks to consumer safety or public health, states, “There is no evidence showing negative effects of fluorescence light on autistic behavior, however, an influence cannot be excluded.” See Turner, Michelle. Annotation: Repetitive Behaviour in Autism: A Review of Psychological Research. J. Child Psychol. Psychiat. Vol. 40, No. 6, pp. 839–849, 1999.

Kantrowitz, Barbara, and Scelfo Julie. “What Happens When They Grow Up.” Newsweek November 27, 2006: p. 50.

Heschong Mahone Group, “Daylighting in Schools: An Investigation into the Relationship between Daylighting andHuman Performance,” The Pacific Gas and Electric Company on behalf of the California Board for Energy Efficiency Third Party Program, Fair Oaks, CA. 1999.

Patricia P., Conway S. and Epstein K. “Daylighting in Schools: Improving Student Performance and Health at a Proce” 2000.

Myler, Patricia A., Thomas A. Fantacone, and Edwin T. Merritt. “Eliminating Distractions.” School and University (2003). 18 Dec. 2005

Vance, James. Email Correspondence October 10, 2011.

Assirell, Maria Luigia, “Designing Environments this for Children & Adults with ASD,” June 2011, Royal Institute of British Architects, London

Al-Mohaisen , Abdullah and Omar Khattab “Green Classroom: Daylighting-conscious Design for Kuwait Autism Center” Global Built Environment Review-GBER, Volume 5, Issue 3, GBER pp 11 – 19.

Humphreys, Simon.  “Autism and Architecture” January 2006.

Young, Eleanor. “Special deeds.” RIBA Journal 111.7 (2004): 59.

Scott, Iain. “Designing learning spaces for children on the autism spectrum.” Good Autism Practice. 10,1,2009. p. 44.

Myler, Patricia A., Thomas A. Fantacone, and Edwin T. Merritt. “Eliminating Distractions.” School and University (2003). 18 Dec. 2005.

Loftness, Vivian and Megan Snyder. “Where Windows Become Doors.” In Biophilic Design, edited by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, and Martin L. Mador,. Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, 2008 p. 121.

Bogdashina, Olga. Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2003 p. 63.

Helfrich, David, and Marcus Adrian. “Comfort, Clarity and Calm: Architecture for Autism.” Autism Advocate. Third Edition Volume 52 No 3 2008 p. 50.

Myler, Patricia A., Thomas A. Fantacone, and Edwin T. Merritt. “Eliminating Distractions.” School and University (2003). 18 Dec. 2005.

Didde Fuhr Pedersen, Public Relations Manager, 3XN. Email Correspondence October 3, 2011.

3XN Project Description for Langagerskölen.

Vance, James. Email Correspondence October 10, 2011.

Young, Eleanor. “Special deeds.” RIBA Journal 111.7 (2004): 59.

Scott, Iain. “Designing learning spaces for children on the autism spectrum.” Good Autism Practice. 10,1,2009. p. 44.

Loftness, Vivian and Megan Snyder. “Where Windows Become Doors.” In Biophilic Design, edited by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, and Martin L. Mador,. Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Benedetti, F. et al. “Morning Sunlight Reduces Length of Hospitalization in Bipolar Depression.” Journal of Affective Disorders 2001, 62:221-223.

McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things. North Point Press, New York. 2002 p. 75.

Küller, Rikard, and Carin Lindsten, “Health and Behavior of Children in Classrooms with and without Windows,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 12 1992 p 316.

Ulrich, Roger. “Biophilic Theory and Research for Healthcare Design.” In Biophilic Design, edited by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, and Martin L. Mador,. Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Billingsley, Bonnie S. “Special Education Teacher Retention and Attrition: A Critical Analysis of the Research Literature,” The Journal of Special Education Vol. 38/No. 1, 2004, p. 39–55.

The two most well known are Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped CHildren (TEACCH)

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Cite: Christopher N. Henry. "Designing for Autism: Lighting" 19 Oct 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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