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Sensory Overload: How People With Autism Experience the World

06/24/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

Adults and children with autism experience the world much differently than we do, so why don't we design homes, parks, and neighborhoods with them in mind? To do this, designers need to take into account the diverse range of experiences for people with autism spectrum disorder, who now account for more than 1 percent of the population. It truly is a spectrum of disorders. As Sherry Ahrentzen, professor of housing studies at the University of Florida and co-author of the upcoming book, At Home with Autism: Designing for the Spectrum, explained at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles, "if you know one person with autism, you really know just one person with autism."

Autism spectrum disorder is a "psychological, cognitive disorder that creates intellectual and mood disabilities." People with autism have a "blend of cognitive strengths and weaknesses." In general, they have the capacity for "detailed thinking, expansive long-term thinking, and examining complex patterns." But they have problems with "understanding social nuances, filtering stimuli, and planning daily living."

However, Ahrentzen argues that "autism isn't just a medical condition, it's also a cultural one." To help people with autism, "we must first acknowledge the diversity of human conditions." To do this, we must understand that "disability is really a social construction. We create environments that enable or disable people."

Kim Steele, director of urban and health initiatives at the elemental group, co-author of At Home with Autism, has a daughter with autism. In her effort to create a more empathetic environment for her, Steele seems to have truly learned what it means to have autism. Steele and Ahrentzen also interviewed many people with autism to better understand how they experience the environment and to create design guidelines that will improve their quality of life:

"People with autism focus on details, not global perspective. A fleck of white on a shirt, a flickering light, a noise command attention. Their default is too many details." While this focus may work well for some types of work that are repetitive and require attention to detail, "it can be a huge problem, as too much input is stressful." For example, Steele's daughter will flap and rock to help refocus attention into something more manageable. "Outside, in the neighborhood, she will fall on the ground and collapse when the details are too much."

To alleviate the stress from all this stimuli, planners, landscape architects, and architects need to make the built environment "more predictable and familiar," perhaps simpler. For example, for most of us, the "kitchen is a place to prepare food, socialize, and eat." For those with autism, "it must be a place to prepare food only, you eat and socialize somewhere else." In another example, Steele explained how hallways can only be seen as conduits. They are not places to stop and talk. "Multi-functional spaces are not acceptable. The meaning is environments is very specific." To help those with autism, designers must create places that "create transparency through spatial sequences and smooth transitions between uses."

Those with autism have various levels of receptivity to the environment, so creating quiet, safe spaces with high-quality lighting is important, too. "Some display hyper-receptivity. This means they may have a problem with noise." For one person with autism they spoke to, "the noise was so disorientating, she couldn't find her body in space." However, in contrast, some people with autism experience "hypo-receptivity, meaning they are under responsive to stimuli." Steele's daughter has this issue. "She can touch a hot stove burner and not realize she is burning herself. She can scald herself in the shower and not know it."

Outside the home, smaller spaces with fewer details may be better. For example, those with autism avoid big box stores. "The acoustics and lighting are bad." According to one person with autism they interviewed, they only go to small shops, which are more manageable.

For landscape architects, those with autism will want residential landscapes and public gardens and parks that are "controlled environments they view as safe." They will also want "things you can lift, engage with." They like swings and "almost universally love to swim." In fact, those with autism will be "drawn to water in all forms," which can also be dangerous. "Designers will need to create safe swimming pools." But Steele also cautioned that hyper-receptive people will be overwhelmed with "gardens with too many different plants."

Eve Edelstein, New School of Architecture & Design, said that "moving through any environment involves the same plastic part of our brains." Edelstein, a leader in the emerging field of "neuro-architecture," argues that design guidelines for indoors then relate to outdoors, too. "What we learn works for hospitals will also work in gardens. It's about brain function in space." She added that what will be good for those with autism will also work for those with a range of other disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Edelstein believes the journey from theory and design guidelines to actual practice in the world at large will be a "tough one." An interdisciplinary design approach is a must for any project that will be more soothing to those dealing with the constant onslaught of too many details.