Le Corbusier stated in his seminal text, Towards a New Architecture, that “...man looks at the creation of architecture with his eyes, which are 5 feet 6 inches from the ground.” Logical and rational codes such as this form the standard for much of architectural production - but of course, these "norms" are as constructed as architecture itself. This particular standard is especially irrelevant when designing for children, for whom the adult-centric assumptions of architecture do not and should not apply.
This article was originally published on Autodesk's Redshift publication as "Architecture for Autism Could Be a Breakthrough for Kids With ASD."
Good architects have always designed with tactile sensations in mind, from the rich wood grain on a bannister, to the thick, shaggy carpet at a daycare center. It’s an effective way to engage all the senses, connecting the eye, hand, and mind in ways that create richer environments.
But one architecture professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is working on a tactile architecture-for-autism environment that does much more than offer visitors a pleasing and diverse haptic experience: It’s a form of therapy for kids like 7-year-old daughter Ara, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
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).
But, as Mostafa told me, "I had a rude awakening; there was virtually nothing."
So she started setting up studies to gather the evidence she'd need to come up with her own guidelines. And she was breaking ground: a study she completed in 2008 was "among the first autism design studies to be prospective not retrospective, have a control group, and measure quantifiable factors in a systematic way."
Since those uncertain beginnings, Mostafa has positioned herself as one of the world's pre-eminent researchers in autism design. Her latest work, summarized in "An Architecture for Autism," the journal IJAR's most downloaded article in 2012, outlines Mostafa's latest accomplishment: the Autism ASPECTSS™ Design Index, both a matrix to help guide design as well as an assessment tool "to score the autism-appropriateness of a built environment" post-occupancy. In the following interview, we discuss the Index, the potential of evidence-based design for architecture, and what it's like to break ground (and try get funding) in a country where "black-outs, security threats, water shortages and unbelievable traffic" are everyday occurrences.
After showing two groups of schoolteachers a videotape of an eight-year-old boy, psychologists John Santrock and Russel Tracy found that the teachers’ judgment of the child ultimately depended on whether they had been told the child came from a divorced home or an intact home. The child was rated as less well-adjusted if the teachers thought he came from a home where the parents were divorced. This finding might seem inconsequential to the field of architecture, but for a profession that often relies on observational studies to evaluate a design’s effect on its users I argue that Santrock and Tracy’s study is one among many architects need to pay attention to.
An observational study*, like post-occupancy surveys, is a common method architects use to evaluate a design’s effect on its users. If done well observational studies can provide a wealth of valuable and reliable information. They do, however, have their pitfalls, most notably controlling for cognitive and selection biases. At the risk of limiting readership, I will illustrate these challenges by reviewing a specific observational study dealing with autism design. Although specific, the following example wrestles with the same difficulties that other observational studies in architecture wrestle with.
In 2007 I visited one of the most talked about autism buildings at the time, the Netley Primary School Autistic Unit in London, England. To my surprise, the building did not look or function in the way the publication material had depicted it. The teachers I interviewed said the views from the nearly wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows were too distracting for the students. Their solution was to cover ¾ of the windows with paper. On top of making the building look somewhat rundown, this solution appeared to hinder the lighting design that originally depended on more daylight. The lesson for future projects seemed obvious; limit views and adjust the lighting accordingly. That is the conclusion I drew, and apparently so did Haverstock Associates, the firm that designed Netley.
After Netley, Haverstock Associates adjusted their approach for the recently finished Kentish Town School Autistic Resource Base. At Kentish Town, Haverstock scaled back the amount of exterior views by employing opaque walls that allow light in but limit views out. There are still a few large views to the outside, and the opaque walls are punctuated every so often with small clear glass windows, mostly above eye-level, but the approach is noticeably different from the one used at Netley (for Kentish Town project images see here). But is the conclusion about limiting views correct? Perhaps, but it might be something else. Maybe what is viewed matters more than how much is viewed.
How do we know that sulfuric acid does not cure scurvy? Is it our wonderful intuitive sense about sulfuric acid’s properties? That can’t be it. Vitriol (sulfuric acid) used to be the Royal College of Physicians’ favored choice. The British Admiralty preferred vinegar. Still others favored a variety of remedies including the seemingly ridiculous notion of fresh fruit. This mess wasn’t sorted out until a young Scottish naval surgeon named James Lind did something revolutionary. In 1747 Lind conducted world’s first controlled clinical trial. Fresh fruit won, sulfuric acid and vinegar lost.
Similarly, there are various untested claims about which architectural interventions are beneficial for individuals with autism (see: here, here, here, and here). For the most part, these claims are mired in anecdote and conjecture. This makes it impossible to decipher which ones are sulfuric acid, vinegar or fresh fruit. Fortunately there are a few architects that have started to embrace the Lind spirit. This is the most important and necessary step architects need to take. If architects do not try to verify their claims through fair tests then they run the risk of undermining the public’s trust or worse, unintentionally doing harm to a vulnerable population.
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.
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?