Autism and Building Design

A young girl is wide-eyed with a drooping mouth as is she is about to be unhappy.If designers are not already thinking about people with autism, they soon will be, or should be. People with autism have the same rights to functional and accessible spaces as everyone else. In his article on Branch Pattern website, Stuart Shell gives an overview of ASD (autism spectrum disorder). He explains why building owners and designers need to include this group, and how it will create great architecture at the same time. 

One in one hundred and fifty children were diagnosed with ASD in 2000. ASD can take the form of extra sensory awareness, and higher levels of anxiety or involuntary responses. However, most autistic people say they have their own way of experiencing the world – it’s not a “disorder”. He concludes with a list of design options and different guidelines. It is a lengthy but very useful article that includes acoustics, lighting, thermal comfort and material finishes and furniture. There is a list of references at the end for further reading. What Autism Teaches Us About Design is an easy and comprehensive read on an important topic. 

There’s also the easy to read FastCo article, How to Design for Autism. As with most thoughtful design that aims to be inclusive, convenient and welcoming, designing interiors for children with autism makes for good interiors for children generally. Close attention was paid to texture, acoustics, and lighting conditions—features just as applicable to the rest of the world when it comes to designing autism-friendly spaces. The architect behind the design of the Center of Autism and the Developing Brain says the key is to be sensitive to light, sight, textures, and sounds. The article can be downloaded from the website.

Autism isn’t a disorder

Books on the subject of autism are  usually written by people who are not neurodiverse. So Siena Castellon, a neurodiverse advocate, has written a book for teenage girls based on her own experiences. She says many people think of the character from the movie Rain Man when the word autism is mentioned. This is similar to thinking about wheelchairs when mentioning the word disability. Neither depicts the broad range of experiences for either group. And it’s not something that needs a cure.

In a New Scientist article Siena relates the common misconception that she should look different in some way. Because she doesn’t, most people think that she can’t be autistic. This is not a compliment. The belief that boys are more likely to have autism than girls is not backed up by evidence, but this idea still prevails. Being neurodiverse poses many challenges – mainly due to the stereotypes others apply to them. 

Siena doesn’t think that community awareness has improved. Regardless, awareness doesn’t mean acceptance and equality. You can see more of Siena’s story in the New Scientist article, Autism isn’t a defect – here’s why we should embrace neurodiversity. There are more links in the article for further reading. 

Use the search facility on the left hand menu to find more posts on autism and neurodiversity

Step this way with no step

A grey tiled porch leads seamlessly into the home without any change in level.There’s lots of myths and worries about universal design features in homes. The no-step entrance is one of them. A covered entrance, which is great in itself, will keep away the rain for the most part. It’s also shade in the summer. A slight grade away from the entrance should deal with the rest. In fact, that is also good for all homes. And it’s easy to do when the home is first built. But people ask why have a no-step entrance when you don’t need it?

It’s based on the assumption that only wheelchair users need it. Think again. A new home means furniture deliveries. Perhaps a new baby on the way – yes, that’s the stroller or pram. Coming home with bags of shopping or a shopping trolley. And let’s not forget the teenager with a broken leg, or grandma who uses a wheelie walker. A no-step entry means everyone can visit and take part in family life. So it’s not just about now – it’s also about the future.

When it comes to cost, if it did cost a bit extra, how much would it be worth to you? The value of not going to institutional care sooner than you need to? The value of having a close family member come to your Christmas dinner? And what about the costly modifications you might need down the track. 

The Universal Design Project based in UK has a podcast and transcript that discusses this subject in more detail with a case study. 

Level entry to the alfresco area of a home showing tables and chairs on the tiled alfresco floor.

It’s also good to consider access to the patio or alfresco so that everyone can enjoy the family gathering. 


Hearing loss makes it harder to remember

Adults seated at tables in a classroom setting looking forward to the instructor at the front of the room Shari Eberts explains in her blog article how people with hearing loss use most of their brain capacity to interpret sounds. Consequently there’s not much left over for remembering.This is particularly the case where there is a lot of background noise. In information situations, such as fire training, this is an important factor. Everyone will need to remember what to do. In learning situations it’s also a significant consideration. 

This finding supports the case for instant captioning of live events and closed captioning in pre-filmed situations. A study on student learning also found that captioning helped learning. Where captioning is not possible, reducing cognitive load is another strategy. That means selecting places where background noise is minimal, speaking clearly and not too fast, using a microphone, and allowing sufficient time for questions. Other studies have found that visual information is more easily remembered by everyone, so pictures and videos would work well in information sessions and instructional situations. The title of the blog article is, Does Hearing Loss Make it Harder to Remember Things

Creating Safe Space for Everyone

A street scene showing a wide footpath and a row of shops in the suburbsHow many urban planners think about accessibility and disability from the outset? Some, no doubt. Urban planners also have to think about personal safety – it’s a core concern. But what about safety for people with disability? Do community norms play a role in design decisions? An article in The Conversation discusses this issue and begins:

“Creating safe and secure urban spaces is a core concern for city managers, urban planners and policy workers. Safety is a slippery concept to pin down, not least because it is a subjective experience. It incorporates our perceptions of places and memories, but also norms in society about who is expected to use spaces in the city, and who is considered to be out of place.”

So it is much more than designing out crime. Different population groups experience safety in different ways – much more nuanced that matching with crime statistics. A study from the University College Cork has looking at this issue in more detail. An overview is in an article in The Conversation by Claire Edwards.

The study looked at three cities in Ireland and some obvious places where people with disability felt unsafe were transport hubs, bars and shopping centres. The Conversation article concludes:

“Urban safety is as much about changing social relations as it is about technical fixes. Disabled people’s experiences show us that it is only by challenging assumptions about who has a right to inhabit urban space that we can create more inclusive, just and safer societies.”

The title of the article is, The experiences of people with disabilities show we need a new understanding of urban safety.  


Designing cities with AI: Should we?

A long view down a street with houses and cars on each side.Photographing street maintenance issues is not new, but taking photos of streets and rating them as good or bad is a relatively new idea. Now it can be done through artificial intelligence (AI). Facelift is a new AI system that allows urban planers to redesign the look of city streets. But where is Google Street View in all this? 

A FastCompany article explains how volunteers from 162 countries rated Google street images. Then the data was put through the AI process. The results were obvious – plazas are beautiful and construction sites aren’t. The next step was to create an interactive tool to generate before and after.  images – Facelift. Urban planners can use this tool to improve the design of existing places. But there is a question about this: is it beautification or gentrification? 

The title of the FastCompany article is, AI can now design cities. Should we let it?  The article concludes:

“For now, the biggest insights I see lurking in the interactive map is that a city block doesn’t need whimsical forest paths or fancy botanical gardens to be desirable. It just needs people living there with diverse buildings, trees providing shade, and designated places to walk. You don’t need an urban planning degree to understand how these simple ideas make a city so much more appealing, but then again, FaceLift’s pretty pictures sure do demonstrate the point as clear as day.”


Homes need to be fit for purpose

Open doors showing level entry from the kitchen to the al fresco.A promotional video asks the question “Why wouldn’t you?”. It is aimed at the buyers of brand new homes. It extols the virtues of universal design. However, I would ask the designers and builders the same question: Why wouldn’t you just include it? It doesn’t look any different from anything else you would build. Not unless you actually notice the convenient step-free threshold and the open plan living. Housing is the probably the only product that deliberately excludes a significant proportion of the population. Yes. Significant. More than one third of households have a person with disability living in it. And I haven’t added the extra 22% of the population with chronic health conditions. The ABS counts this group separately from people with disability. 

Research by Phillippa Carnemolla shows that family care hours dropped by 47% after a home was modified to be more accessible. That’s because the individual could do much more for themselves. Difficult to argue the economics on that one. 

I wrote an article on this for arguing the case for universal design in housing using the video as the basis for the discussion.  

Jane Bringolf, Editor

Japan’s smart city of the future

Artist impression of the Woven City in Japan.Transitioning from an analogue city to a digitally smart one can be problematic. How do you mix and match? But what if you started out from scratch on a greenfield site? That leaves the way clear to try out all sorts of ideas, inventions and prototypes. So, that is what Toyota is planning: a 175 acre smart city in Japan at the base of Mount Fuji. It will be a testing ground for smart homes and artificial intelligence. Toyota employees and their families, retirees, retailers and scientists will live in smart homes and get around in automated vehicles.

Home robotics technology will assist with daily living and monitor basic needs. The article about the Woven City by Katie Warren in the Business Insider provides more information on this idea. 

“With people, buildings, and vehicles all connected and communicating with each other through data and sensors, we will be able to test connected AI technology… in both the virtual and the physical realms … maximizing its potential,” said Toyota president, Akio Toyoda. As he wants it to be easy for people to mobilise, I hope the designers consider the principles of universal design across the design spectrum. 

Picture courtesy Toyota is an artist impression of the planned smart city.  

UD in school buildings AND learning

A female teacher stands smiling in front of a class of young students in school uniform. One has her arm raised as if to ask or answer a question.While we talk of inclusive education and designing inclusive learning material, little has changed in the physical design of schools. According to an article in The Conversation, the classic 7 Principles of Universal Design are too vague and abstract to be of any help. However, designers are often directed to them as the way to go. Read more on this discussion about learning from the best that already exists. The authors are Scott Alterator, Benjamin Cleveland and Jocelyn Boys. There are more useful links to other documents in the article.The title of the article is, Students with disabilities need inclusive buildings. We can learn from what’s already working.

Steinfeld and Maisel in 2012 devised the 8 Goals of Universal Design, which are more practical, but they haven’t had the same coverage as the Principles. 

Editor’s note: I agree with the authors that the 7 Principles are only a starter for thinking inclusively. Unfortunately they are so often quoted in academia and guidebooks that it is difficult to shift away from them. Part of the problem is that the term “universal design” is used in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. That isn’t the problem per se. If people don’t know what universal design is, they Google it or go to Wikipedia. A Google search will almost certainly take you to the 7 Principles. And then perhaps policy makers and designers look no further.

There is no quick fix checklist. Inclusion is more than that – it is a way of thinking. I wrote an article along time ago that is still being read, Universal Design: Is it Accessible?   

Talking to Users: An introvert’s guide

A desk has highlighter pens in different colours, working papers and a smart phone.What if you are a designer and you’re not sure how to engage with your user base? According to a UXDesign blog post, many designers are introverted and don’t know where to start with user interviews. A fear of talking to strangers brings up many thoughts: 

I’m no researcher, what if I don’t ask the right questions?
What if I say something stupid or offend the person?
How do I not contaminate the responses with my own views?

So some tips for stepping outside the comfort zone are helpful. The article has some practical advice such as, don’t jump straight into the questions without some light introductory chat. And fix the things you didn’t like about the interview process for the next time. The title of the article is An introvert’s guide to starting user interviews.

However, it might be the case that the personalities that go into ICT are not the people who are good at user interaction. This might be why higher education programs are not producing graduates who are skilled at this side of the design process. Indeed, according to an article from Norway, the institutions are not training people to even meet basic legal design requirements for accessibility.