Designing for Autism: The 'Neuro-Typical' Approach

Designing for Autism: The 'Neuro-Typical' Approach
USA Architects' design for the DLC © Donna Senopoulos

Similar to a mainstream school setting, Celebrate the Children, a school for children with autism, lines its hallways with colorful banners, photographs, and student artwork. Parents concerned with some of their children’s hypersensitivities often ask Monica Osgood, the school’s director, if there is too much stimulation. Monica responds that her students need to learn in ‘real’ world settings if they will ever have a chance to use their acquired skills outside of the classroom. This logic for replicating ‘neuro-typical’ environments, argues directly against the sensory sensitive approach, and, with reasons worth exploring. Individuals with autism often have very poor generalization skills. Therefore proponents of ‘neuro-typical’ simulated environments claim that sensory sensitive environments actually cause less, not more, universal access and integration into the larger population. Whether or not there is any truth to this claim is unknown. There are strong arguments for and against the ‘neuro-typical’ approach, but there are no definitive studies comparing the sensory sensitive approach to the ‘neuro-typical’ approach.

The first argument for the ‘neuro-typical’ approach is an argument against the prevalence of sensory difficulties in autism. Developmental Psychologist Uta Frith writes, “a question mark hangs over the sensory phenomena, which are often reported but not currently required for diagnosis.” Psychologists Meena O’neil and Robert Jones found that much of the early sensory research and conclusions suffer “from serious methodical limitations.” Many of the early studies lacked appropriate control groups and depended on “the limitations of retrospective parent-report methodology typical of the area” for data collection. In regards to the first-hand accounts, O’neil and Jones also point out that “a number of dangers are inherent in uncritically accepting these accounts at face value and in any wider generalization to the autistic population as a whole.” Still, some researchers, like Janet Kern, insist that more current research demonstrates that sensory processing dysfunction persist globally throughout autism and affects “all the main modalities and mulitsensory processing” systems. Others like Geraldine Dawson and Renee Watling contend that “sensory processing abnormalities are not universal or specific to autism, the prevalence of such abnormalities in autism is relatively high.” If sensory processing dysfunction is not universal to autism then it might be hard to advocate for sensory sensitive environments if they hinder generalization skill development, which appears to be a more universal difficultly for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Main street at the MUJC DLC © /

In reality, you rarely hear proponents of the ‘neuro-typical’ approach denying sensory processing difficulties. They simply believe sensory sensitive environments are more limiting due to poor generalization skills. ‘Neuro-typical’ proponents are correct about poor generalization skills in autism. Laura Klinger and Geraldine Dawson’s research, at the University of Washington Autism Center, demonstrates that children with autism struggle applying previously learned concepts in new situations. For instance, if an individual learns how to use the bathroom in one particular setting s/he may not generalize this skill set to other bathroom settings. This struggle exposes an intriguing difference between the wiring of a ‘typical’ brain and an autistic brain.

The majority of human cognitive systems possess a “built-in propensity to form coherence over as wide a range of stimuli as possible, and to generalize over as wide a range of contexts as possible.” Uta Frith explains that poor generalization skills may be the result of an autistic brain’s propensity to discriminate between the finest of detail. “Autistic children might not be prepared to see similarities at a more abstract level, and hence would fail to place stimuli into the same category, even when they only differ in the tiniest detail.” Undoubtedly, if individuals are unable to transfer skills they become imprisoned to the select few autism specific environments where they acquired the skills.

Diner at the MUJC DLC © /

With generalization in mind, USA Architects’ concept for the 167,000 square-foot Morris-Union Jointure Commission’s (MUJC) Developmental Learning Center (DLC) “was to replicate the environments and social settings that students would normally travel “off-campus” to experience.” USA Architects designed the main corridor as a “replica of a typical American main street.” This “street” includes the Commerce Bank, Warrenville and Berkeley Hardware Store, Carmen’s Barber Shop, Ferratti’s Plant Nursery, Towne Deli Diner, Manufacturing lab, ShopRite, and a mock Apartment complete with living and dining room, kitchen, bedroom, laundry and game rooms. Dr. Kim Coleman, MUJC’s superintendent, believes that, “Simulating the real world in school should make the transition to the real world that much less intimidating.”

interior window looking on to main street at the MUJC DLC © /

Not everyone agrees with Dr. Kim Coleman for several reasons. First, proponents of the ‘neuro-typical’ approach must assume that current ‘neuro-typical’ environments represent the best environments in which people learn. If not, then they are awkwardly advocating for designed environments that fail both mainstream and autistic individuals. For example, we know that sunlight and certain types of exterior views improve overall health, increase productivity, and reduce sick days and attrition rates. Yet, how many schools, grocery stores, retail stores, banks, and apartments provide adequate daylight and beneficial exterior views? In parts of California, for example, “many of the classrooms built since the 1960’s have little daylighting. Windows are commonly built with “black glass” that allows a view out, but no useful daylight in. Numerous schools have been built with no windows at all.” What type of ‘neuro-typical’ environment should architects replicate in such a context, the environment ‘neuro-typical’ students have or should have? If the latter, then the argument that replication helps generalization doesn’t apply. If the former, then could it also be argued that if ‘neuro-typical’ students learn to read in the dark, then individuals with autism must learn to read in the dark?

USA Architects' design for the DLC © Donna Senopoulos

Additionally, proponents of the sensory sensitive approach argue that individuals with autism need an environment that helps them acquire a skill before they can generalize it. In other words, individuals can only generalize skills that they possess. If individuals cannot acquire or experience extreme difficulty learning a skill in a ‘neuro-typical’ simulated setting then the ‘neuro-typical’ argument is a hard sale.

A third argument against replicating ‘neuro-typical’ environments is that such settings do not improve generalization skills, but merely mask poor ones. Being able to generalize skills does not mean being able to only function in substandard ‘neuro-typical’ environments. It means being able to use a skill in good, mediocre, and bad environments. ‘Neuro-typical’ environments attempt to simulate the real world so the individuals with autism never actually have to generalize skills. USA Architects’ DLC is somewhat of an exception to this. Unlike Celebrate the Children, the DLC does not attempt to replicate a ‘neuro-typical’ school. By not having to replicate a typical school, USA Architects were able to offer individuals more opportunities to practice generalizing skills. For example, there are a variety of bathrooms from residential to public scale. This emphasizes generalization over replicating skills in copied environments.

The last argument against the ‘neuro-typical’ approach stems from a larger question about society’s responsibility towards individuals with disabilities. Should individuals with disabilities be required to habituate themselves to the ‘typical’ standard if they want access and acceptance into the larger society? For example, if the ‘ambulant-typical’ environment consists of mainly stairs should architects force individuals with limited mobility to learn to navigate the environment without ramps, lifts, or curb cuts? That’s a rhetorical question. Perhaps ‘neuro-typical’ environments should be more accommodating for individuals with autism. We demand it to be for individuals with limited mobility, why not autism?

Both, the sensory sensitive and ‘neuro-typical’ approach, have good reasons to believe the other limits individuals with autism. Until future studies can answer the following questions comparing the two we will be left squabbling over many logical arguments that might prove superfluous. Do sensory sensitive environments hinder generalization skills? Do ‘neuro-typical’ settings hamper skill acquisition? Do individuals with autism more quickly learn skills in sensory sensitive environments? Is the rate of acquisition statistically meaningful when compared to the possible difficulties of generalizing that skill? Does replicating the ‘neuro-typical’ environment improve generalization skills? Is it statistically meaningful when compared to the possible difficulties of acquiring that skill? Do individuals exhibit differences in quality of life between the two environments, i.e. rates of depression, stress levels and overall health? Perhaps the answers to these questions will bridge the divide between the two theories, and the more appropriate approach will be more of a mixture of the two than a triumph of one over the other.

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

Photographs: Robert I. Faulkner Watercolor Renderings: Donna Senopoulos

For more images of the DLC see the gallery after the endnotes. Add to the discussion in the comment section below.

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.

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

Frith, Uta, Autism: Explaining the Enigma 2nd edition, Oxford, (Blackwell) 2003 p. 10.

Combining these factors with the current difficulty of reliably finding sensory dysfunction symptoms in learning disabled children, O’Neil and Jones believe that we still know very little about the prevalence of sensory processing issues along autism spectrum, its degree of severity, and its course over time. (1997)

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. (1997)

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.

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.

Klinger, L. G., and Dawson, G. (2000) “Prototype formation in autism,” Developmental Psychology, 13, 111-24.

Frith, Uta, Autism: Explaining the Enigma 2nd edition, Oxford, (Blackwell) 2003 p. 159-164.

Marion, Michael. “Bringing The World to the Classroom.” EP Magazine, April 2006 p. 32-35.

“Coddington Drive” at MuJC’s New Warren DLC Will Help Prepare Students for Life & Work” Connection: A Publication of the Morris-Union Jointure Commission June 2007.

Marion, Michael. “Bringing The World to the Classroom.” EP Magazine, April 2006 p. 32-35.

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.

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.

USA Architects’ passive solar design for the DLC “incorporates energy-efficient lights, clearstory windows that provide abundant natural daylight, and a general building orientation and angled roofs intended to maximize the advantage of the sun.” (Marion 2006). I am unaware if this is typical within the larger community context of the DLC. Therefore I am unable to comment on which approach the DLC represents in regards to lighting; providing what ‘neuro-typical’ should have or do have. If abundant natural lighting is typical of the DLC’s context then it is a win win for the ‘neuro-typical’ approach in this situation. For other debates on natural lighting and autism see: Henry, Christopher N. “Designing For Autism: Lighting” October 19, 2011.

Mostafa, Magda. “An Architecture for Autism: Concepts of Design Intervention for the Autistic User.” International Journal of Architectural Research. Volume 2 Issue 1. 189-204. March 2008.

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Cite: Christopher N. Henry. "Designing for Autism: The 'Neuro-Typical' Approach" 03 Nov 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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