An ASID Industry Partner through Allsteel, A.J.Paron-Wildes, ASID, is an advocate for making interior environments places of healing. With a focus on designing for autistic children, Paron-Wildes has helped ensure that homes, occupational and speech therapy offices, schools, group homes, specialized autistic centers and other venues are correctly designed with their needs in mind.
ASID ICON managing editor Jennifer Lipner spoke with Paron-Wildes about how she came to specialize in this area of design.
ICON: Can you speak a bit about your focus on designing spaces for autistic children? You were inspired by your son, to focus on this aspect of design. How has it affected your overall approach to design work?
PW: Around 1998, my son Devin, then age 3, was formally diagnosed with autism. I started researching autism, learning what it is and how it affects you neurologically and medically. When I started reading articles and books about and by adults with autism, what struck me was how their senses experienced the world. Everything was so different in how they saw things as far as colors, lighting, vibrancy. The whole notion of how they experience the environment was totally different. That intrigued me. As a designer, you design to the normalcy of your senses, but you can’t do that with an autistic. I reached out to Cynthia Leibrock, FASID, who is a pioneer in health and universal design, asking about research on environments for autistic people. No one had done that research. I worked with the University of Minnesota to develop a more formal research program to develop design principles. The exciting point was the moment when I could put them into practice for my son. I was just testing theories, using trial and error. Gradually, I broadened the environments I was testing.
ICON: How can interior design contribute to our understanding of conditions like autism?
PW: Autism is a medical issue, so if we can address the medical issue, it will help everything else. I have worked with researchers all over the country. There is a lot to be said about environmental toxins as potential cause of underlying medical issues. My first rule of thumb is “Do no harm.” So as a designer, the environmental toxins issue really struck me, as someone who specifies furnishings, etc. It’s a tough position, a real challenge to feel like you’re specifying healthy stuff. You are working with two- to three-year old kids who are nonverbal, have no skills. Usually I am not changing their whole house, but developing a specific learning space for the child.
ICON: What have you discovered from your work with autistic children?
PW: What I have learned is, eventually you get pulled into other neurological disorders. What works with autistic kids also works with adults with dementia, for example. Behaviors that are seen in the newly diagnosed autistic kids are very similar to those in the newly diagnosed Alzheimer’s patients. It is interesting perspective to see that continuum. Another interesting thing is the issue of traumatic brain injury – often related to combat injuries from Iraq or Afghanistan. You encounter the same sort of deficits in these injuries as in autism, similar sensory issues. For instance, when designing wayfinding for stairs, the classic zigzag and arrow symbol doesn’t work: They see it as just a zigzag, not representative of a path or movement. A lot of these veterans are returning to the workplace and have a lot to contribute, so whatever we can do to support them is really important.
ICON: Are you able to apply what you’ve learned to your work at Allsteel?
PW: At Allsteel, we have conversations with clients about productivity issues. The clients are finding that new male grads have zero attention span. They may not be autistic but have similar traits due to same exposures to toxins in the environment. Aspersers kids tend to go into fields like IT or accounting, but perhaps are not diagnosed. You see these things all the time, and I know what to look for.
In the work environment, I’m trying to put these sensitivities into play. As companies become more collaborative, and spaces become more open, there needs to be a balance and to give people a distraction-free environment. Balance can be visual, auditory, or even about smells, such as from a kitchen or copy room. We have to pay attention to toxicity, making sure the workplace is a clean environment.
ICON: Are there lessons other designers can take away from the work you’ve done with people who have special needs?
PW: It is amazing to me, now that I’ve focused on a subgroup, how applicable what I have learned is to the general population. My mantra is, When you design for these children, not only do they do better, but the general public does better from designing more universally.