With April being Autism Awareness Month, it’s especially appropriate to review what the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) has done and is doing to fund research on supportive environments for young children with autism and to ensure ASID members have access to expert advice on designing for people with autism at all stages of their lives. The Society recognizes the critical role that interior designers can play in the lives of people with autism.
We know a lot about autism. However, the two things we don’t know, or can’t be sure of, are at the very heart of the disorder: What causes it and why is it increasing? Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are terms for a group of brain development disorders in the areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function. Individuals with autism can also suffer from a long list of medical conditions, from asthma and epilepsy to viral infections and sleeping disorders.
Adults and children with autism can be profoundly affected by their physical environment: lighting, colors, textures, arrangement of furnishings, floor coverings, window placement, and so on. This is where you come in. Designing environments for people with autism can make the lives of those people better, can assist caretakers, and can even affect the course of the disorder.
Because the condition takes so many different courses, prescribing a set number of design “solutions” for interior spaces can be counterproductive. Some people affected by the disorder might enjoy natural light and would benefit from sunlamps; others, who are overly sensitive to light, might have to be accommodated with room-darkening shades.
The designing-for-autism community also debates the value of large versus small spaces. Some children affected by autism are fearful of large, open spaces and cannot, for example, venture out into a mall. Others, however, dislike the close contact and bumping that is inevitable in small, intimate spaces.
As you educate yourself about designing for autism, being wary of absolutes is probably the first lesson you need to learn.
Regarding the design of an entire building and not just the personal space occupied by someone who is affected by autism, the National Autistic Society (NAS) offers an excellent set of guidelines for everything from briefing notes on general design points to creating an appropriate environment for people on the autism spectrum. (Although NAS is located in the United Kingdom, the information on the website remains useful for anyone designing for those affected by autism.)
The ASID Foundation awarded the 2012 Irene Winifred Eno Grant — which provides financial assistance to individuals or groups engaged in the creation of an educational program or an interior design research project dedicated to health, safety and welfare — to Caren S. Martin, College of Design, University of Minnesota. Martin recently completed her study: “Examining Supportive Educational Environments for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) through Grade 6.”
Martin gave ASID this update on autism research: “Recently, the CDC (2014) noted that the number of children identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one in 68. Knowledge about educational interventions for children with ASD is substantial; however, far less is known about the design of supportive classroom environments where they learn. With support from the ASID Foundation via the Irene Winifred Eno Grant, an extensive review of refereed journal articles (2000-2012) yielded only 19 articles that addressed classroom design criteria for young children with ASD. This scant research leaves designers, teachers, and school administrators substantially reliant on anecdotal information in terms of creating optimal learning environments to support inclusion of children with ASD. There is an urgent need for additional research that examines the critical design/human behavior relationship via identification of evidence-based design criteria to guide classroom design solutions that support learning by children with ASD. Interior designers and researchers must collaborate to document measurable outcomes of their design solutions and share findings with the design industry, building the body of knowledge and advancing classroom design for children with ASD.”
ASID has also partnered with John Wiley & Sons to create the E-Book Design Shorts series dedicated to interior design for people with autism. The books in the series focus on three main life phases and impart the expert knowledge an interior designer needs to successfully design for people with autism. ASID members can get 30 percent off by ordering at the Wiley website and using ASID when checking out.
Titles in the Wiley E-Book Design Shorts series include:
- Interior Design for Autism from Birth to Early Childhood
- Interior Design for Autism from Childhood to Adolescence
- Interior Design for Autism from Adulthood to Geriatrics
There are also informative videos on the books:
Interior Design for Autism by A.J. Paron-Wildes (series introduction)
For more information or to order these groundbreaking books from ASID and Wiley, visit wileypub.com.
All three of the Wiley books are by A. J. Paron-Wildes, who has a son with autism and has been involved for the past 15 years with various interiors projects while researching best principles on designing for autism. She has worked on clinics, research centers, treatment facilities, hospitals, schools, residential placement facilities and homes for individuals with autism. Her research has identified ways to eliminate barriers for people with special needs to help make them more successful in the critical areas and functions of their lives.
By supporting research into and practical knowledge about designing for people with autism, ASID is giving truth to its aspiration to positively change people’s lives through the power of design.