Design for the autistic community

The Autumn 2023 Access Insight magazine has an article by John Van der Have on designing for autism. He introduces a design guide by Magda Mostafa and her work on design for the autistic community.

Van der Have begins his article with an older medical description of autism (ASD) and some statistics. As many people know, sensory overload is common for people within the neurodivergent community. Too many sights, sounds, smells and tactile experiences can cause stress and anxiety. That’s why the choice of building materials and systems need additional consideration.

Minimising noise and unwanted sounds through good acoustic design is a vital criterion. But how much acoustic insulation is enough, and how much is too much? Questions such as these have implications for construction costs.

A man is placing headphones over his ears. He is facing away from the camera. The background is blurred from traffic or public transport.

Biophilic principles are beneficial for everyone, but for the autistic community, these elements can enhance their sense of wellbeing. Natural lighting, natural ventilation and views of nature are especially helpful.

Van der Have discusses educational settings and a time-out room where children can still learn in a supportive environment. A calming space at home, as well as a room fitted out to suit a child’s preferences is also a good idea.

As we begin to understand autism and neurodiversity, it’s possible there will be moves to regulate suitable designs. However, regulation should not be needed if designers take action themselves to be more inclusive. Van der Have’s article is on page 18 of Access Insight. It is titled, Design for People on the Autism Spectrum and introduces the work of Magda Mostafa.

Autism friendly design guide

Magda Mostafa, an architect and researcher, developed a design framework for incorporating the needs of the neurodivergent community. The framework is based on 7 design concepts:

  • Acustics
  • Spatial Sequencing
  • Escape
  • Compartmentalisation
  • Transition
  • Sensory Zoning
  • Safety

In Cities People Love, Mostafa talks about her experiences as an architect working as an autism design consultant. She says designers have to rethink the tools they need. A human-centred approach to design, such as focus groups, assumes everyone is able to speak and participate. She wants to see the principles from the Autism Friendly University Design Guide applied more widely.

The Autism Friendly University Design Guide was developed in collaboration with the Dublin City University and is applicable in other settings. The first half of the 116 page detailed guide covers the research, and the second has the guiding principles. Mostafa’s work is worth following for anyone interested in designing for neurodivergence.

This edition of Access Insight also has an article on water safety for autistic children on page 4.

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