Design for autistic people’s spaces

Materials World magazine
,
10 May 2019

Materials and colour choices that are sensitive to an autistic person’s sensory stimuli can help them enjoy home and work.

Bespoke design is the most effective way for environments to meet the needs and desires of people on the autism spectrum to maximise their quality of life, an academic has found. Katie Gaudion is a Senior Research Associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, London, and is starting her own design consultancy called Design for Mind.

Over the past 10 years, Gaudion has worked extensively with autistic adults across the spectrum within a wide range of contexts such as care homes, supported living accommodation, the workplace, hospitals and outdoor spaces.

She completed the PhD A Designer’s Approach: Exploring how autistic adults with additional learning disabilities experience their home environment in 2015. The project explored ways to involve autistic adults with limited verbal speech and additional learning disabilities in the design process, so the environment, products and services created met their needs, strengths and desires.

Gaudion’s research and experience show how autistic people can be highly sensitive to the sensory qualities of the environment while colours, sounds and textures can provide pleasurable experiences, they can also trigger anxiety. However every person’s response to sensory stimuli is different, therefore, environments should be designed with the specific person’s sensory preferences and sensitivities in mind.

‘It’s true when people say “when you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person”. It’s really important not to generalise,’ she said.

Among her experiences, Gaudion met an autistic person who also experienced synesthesia – a condition where one sensory stimulation in one pathway may activate another – and responded negatively to the colour yellow.

‘In his workplace, there was a yellow corridor, and he could not walk down it because he could taste the colour yellow and it made him feel sick. Not everyone might have such a reaction, but if it’s going to be a shared environment, like the workplace, or supported accommodation where a lot of autistic people might be sharing a home together, everyone’s individual sensitivities really need to be considered’ she said.

During her PhD, Gaudion developed a design framework called The Triad of Strengths which supports the idea that by understanding a person’s sensory preferences, special interests and action capabilities, an important palette of ingredients can be created to help make decisions about the design of environments, products and services that enhance positive experiences for that person.

The triad includes a pack of sensory preference cards called What do I like?, which consists of 72 cards set within the context of the home. Each card shows a different type of sensory experience, which is described in simple words and illustrated by a photographic image. The cards act as visual prompts inviting the participant to express whether he or she likes, dislikes or is neutral about the subject of each card.

‘The cards enabled the people I was working with to look at a card and express a like or dislike to that sensory experience through gesture. From there, I could create a mood board of a person’s likes, dislikes and things they were OK about,’ she said.

The What do I like cards were a useful tool which Gaudion used when designing a shared garden space for nine autistic adults in supported accommodation.

‘They helped with designing for people who all had different sensory preferences and sensitivities. When I laid the cards out I could see correlations between the things the residents liked and disliked to then explore ways to negotiate them,’ she said.

Gaudion recently collaborated with British Standards Institution to explore how neurodivergent people experience the built environment. The project presented a collection of insights, ideas and experiences to help inform the structure for new BSI design guidelines for the built environment that consider the needs of people who are neurologically diverse.

‘This is a fantastic step in the right direction as up until now there have been standards for people with different physical abilities, but no consideration for a person’s neurology and how that can have an impact on how they experience the environment,’ she said.


Related content:

Treloar’s school designs for SEN children: bit.ly/2PZ0q9j

Lightyear Foundation helps SEN children learn STEM: bit.ly/308V6VH