Reality Check

An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 2007 I presented a conceptual (unbuilt) design for the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic. During that presentation I argued for a calming environment, in part because of high divorce rates among families with individuals with autism. There is one catch; I couldn’t have known what the divorce rates were. No study prior to 2010 had seriously looked at divorce rates among families with autism, more on that later. My irresponsible and inexcusable blunder reflects the depressingly common urge we have to jump to conclusions about the why and how of a situation before we analyze the reality of it. For centuries, countless scholars built elaborate models to explain why and how the sun went around the earth without ever asking “does it?” This kind of cognitive blindness makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; it is better to assume a hungry lion is making the grass rustle than to ponder if it is nothing at all. Not surprisingly we tend to make more Type I errors (false positives) than Type II errors (false negatives). Although advantageous on the African savannah, this type of thinking can be disastrous when making design decisions.

My stomach still turns when I think of how I carelessly helped perpetuate the myth that families with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis have higher rates of divorce. The myth of high divorce rates (80%+) has been strong in the press and the autism community, including a statement made by Susan Wright, the cofounder of Autism Speaks, the U.S.’s largest autism science and advocacy organization. I first came across this myth while reading an article about HGA’s 38.8 million dollar design for the UCDavis M.I.N.D. Institute. In that article Architect Bill Blanski stated, “imagine an autistic child in a young family. It’s a very stressful experience, and the divorce rate among these families is huge… So a warm, inviting, calm atmosphere was very important.”

Statements about divorce rates are not innocuous statements, whether or not they are true. First, if it is true, then it needs to be delivered with greater care than I did. Many individuals with an ASD diagnosis can understand the meaning of such a statement. Without a sensitive and thoughtful delivery, some individuals might blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. Nonchalantly saying that an autism diagnosis increases divorce rates is callous at best. Now, imagine making this statement without bothering to investigate if it is true. That is what I did. And here is the painful irony; a large epidemiological study published in 2011 by Johns Hopkins’s Kennedy Krieger Institute found that an ASD diagnosis, when controlling for accompanying diagnoses, actually decreased the rate of divorce.

So were Bill Blanski and I wrong to design a calming environment in our respective designs? Not necessarily. We were correct that families with ASD individuals experience uniquely stressful relationships. What’s more, since the completion of the M.I.N.D. Institute, the building has received positive feedback. “We’ve actually gotten almost spiritual or religious comments back about the calming sense of space at the M.I.N.D. Institute,” says Blanksi. Dr. Robert Hendren says, “The kids seem much calmer; there’s not as much yelling and running around. Even though they can hear a lot of noise from other kids, some of which might be upsetting, with this design the building seems to absorb the sound.” Additionally, there are many other reasons for Blanski’s sensory sensitive approach (see here, here and here). However, there are arguments against the sensory sensitive approach, most notably the ‘neuro-typical’ approach. Both approaches severely lack quality evidence, but buildings need to be built, and one must choose amongst the various options that might prove incorrect in the future. That, however, does not give us license to fabricate “facts” out of whole cloth to support our decisions.

How does pointing any of this out help the architecture profession? Because it matters how architects reach their conclusions. The ends do not justify the means. Six times eight isn’t 48 because it sounds nice. That method isn’t going to help when you try six times nine. Blanski and I might have luckily been right about creating calming environments in our respective designs, that’s a big maybe. Still, that doesn’t mean our method, or lack thereof, would work for other design decisions. How can we trust design decisions if the means of reaching them are flawed? Making claims, without considering the evidence, undermines the trust between architects and the public. Perhaps architects would be in a better position today if more architects based their theories and design decisions on the best available evidence, were comfortable saying “I don’t know,” and resisted assuming too much.

Isaac Newton famously quipped, “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. ‘Tis much better to do a little with certainty, and leave the rest for others that come after you, than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing.” I will make a faithful effort to adhere to this dictum. We all have cognitive biases so I will slip up again; I will think I know things that I don’t. Please be sure to hold me accountable.

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

Probably my favorite example is when Galileo proved that ice was less dense than water. According to Aristotle the reason ice floated was because of its shape not its density. Amazingly no one tried to test this theory. Galileo simply put ice at the bottom of a container and demonstrated that it floated to the top. If the shape prevented ice from moving downward through the water then it should have prevented the ice from moving upwards. Sobel, Dava. Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Walker and Company, 2011. (This might not be the best book on Galileo’s work, but it is unfortunately the only one that I have read that looks at his life and work. It has an interesting spin as it examines his relationship with his daughter who spent her life in a convent. What I found most interesting was Galileo’s belief that the tides were in many ways better evidence than his telescopic observations for the motion of the earth. This seems silly in light of what we know about the moon and gravity, but it is fascinating that this argument has been forgotten when we discuss Galileo supporting Copernicus’s hypothesis. This is something I really want to explore in greater detail. Science is messy and I think it should be presented that way.)

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2011. I found this book very amusing. I found the part on priming super interesting and can only wonder how architecture plays a role. If you want a review check out this one from the New York Times.

Mitchell, Andrea. NBC Chairman Bob Wright and his wife Suzanne talk about the urgency of discovering a cure for Autism with NBC Correspondent Andrea Mitchell. Washington Life Magazine. 2006.

Libby, Brian. “Psychologically Accessible.” Architecture Week. January 19, 2005.

To get an idea of the diversity of the autism spectrum see:

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

Grinker, Roy Richard. Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism. Cambridge, Basic Books 2007.

There can be all sorts of reasons to explain higher divorce rates. For instance, there might be a “lack of public understanding of and tolerance for the behaviors of children with an .” Leonard Abbeduto, Marsha Mailick Seltzer, Paul Shattuck, Marty Wyngaarden Kraus, Gael Orsmon, Melissa M. Murph. “Stress and coping in mothers of youths with Down syndrome, autism, and fragile X syndrome.” American Journal on Mental Retardation, 109, 2004, p. 237–254.

Or, perhaps different healthcare systems increase the financial burden of autism interventions. The following sources do not look at the financial burden of autism and its influence on divorce rates. They look at the financial burden of autism. One looks at the different state laws that create differences in healthcare coverage for children with mental illness.

Barry, Collen L. and Susan H. Bush. “Do State Parity Laws Reduce the Financial Burden on Families of Children with Mental Health Care Needs?” Health Services Research Vol. 42, 3, 2007, p. 1061-1084.

Konrad, Walecia. “Dealing with the Financial Burden of Autism.” New York Times. January 22, 2010.

Leslie, Douglas L. and Andres Martin. “Healthcare Expenditures Associated With Autism Specturm Disorders,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Vol 161, 4, 2007, p. 350-355.

Freedman, Brian H., Luther G. Kalb, Benjamin Zablotsky and Elizabeth A. Stuart. “Relationship Status Among Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Population-Based Study.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

It is important to note that there was a small empirical study published in 2010 that did find higher rates of divorce among families with autism. Of course, neither Blanski nor I could have cited that study as we made our statements three/five years prior. Seeing that neither of us cared enough to search out evidence for our offhanded statement, it is highly unlikely that we would have examined the methodology of the 2010 to understand how cautious we should be with generalizing the evidence (see the discussion section of the 2011 Freedman study). Understanding how good the evidence is for one’s claims is another subject altogether. First we need to get people to search out and find evidence before we can debate how good it is. The study for higher rates of divorce can be found here: Sigan L. Hartley, Erin T. Barker, Marsha Mailick Seltzer, Jan Greenberg, Frank Floyd, Gael Orsmond, Daniel Bold. “The Relative Risk and Timing of Divorce in Families of Children With an Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Journal of Family Psychology. Vol. 24, No. 4, 2010, p. 449-457.

Libby, Brian. “Psychologically Accessible.” Architecture Week. January 19, 2005.

“Seeking Answers For Autism,” Healthcare Design Magazine. March 1, 2004.

Henry, Christopher, “Designing for Autism: The ‘Neuro-Typical’ Approach,” November 3, 2011

Henry, Christopher, “Designing for Autism: Lighting,” October 19, 2011.

Henry, Christopher. “Designing for Autism: Spatial Considerations,” October 26, 2011.

McGuire, J.E. “Newton’s “Principles of Philosophy”: An Intended Preface for the 1704 Opticks and a Related Draft Fragment.” The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 5, No. 2 December 2007, p. 183.

About this author
Cite: Christopher N. Henry. "Reality Check" 11 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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