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Autism and Architecture

In looking at technology in terms of how we arrange and build spaces, speakers Cathy Lord and Jacques Black gave a recent talk at the Healthcare Design Expo & Conference entitled “Healthy Environments for Autism” in which they discussed how the increase in the number of cases of autism is necessitating a need for us to become more aware of how we design environments for people with autism.

Firstly, the topic of autism and building design has been around for a while as many psychologists and experts have sought to better understand how one can mitigate the symptoms of autism through architecture. After all, many people with autism suffer from a high degree of stress, which in turn can effect how they interact with the spaces in which they live and work.

Black and Lord present something of an update of this classical understanding of how architecture and autism intersect and they argue that autism is defined by how someone behaves and learns. In addition, individuals with autism or other intellectual disorders tend to have other physical health disorders, which mediate how they interact with spaces and a person’s particular intellectual and physical disabilities should always be taken into consideration when designing a treatment based around space.

As Black explains, the treatment she and Lord are pioneers of focuses on a person’s strengths and tends to involve a multidisciplinary approach with planned activities and goals that are designed to improve focus and attention, instead of simply sitting and observing. As Lord said, “It involves a different type of space.”

Lord and Black collaborated together in the design of The Center for Autism and Developing Brain, a partnership with New York—Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Columbia University and the New York Collaborates for Autism. The project involved converting the former men’s gym building in a landmarked behavioral healthcare building on New York Presbyterian’s White Plains, NY, campus.

In putting the treatment plan together, Lord stated it was crucial to create a homelike setting that addresses the specific needs of patients with autism. As such, noise control is a crucial element due to the fact that patients with autism are extremely sensitive to noise. In addition, both Lord and Black acknowledged that color is an important aspect of creating a care setting that feels homier and less institutional, something that was achieved through the use of muted blues, greens, and yellows displayed in a controlled fashion. Finally, purposeful design is the third crucial element of this treatment, as Black says it’s important to include a range of experiences for patients by including an array of touchable materials, such as rubber flooring, matted walls, and wood surfaces.

Of course, both Lord and Black admitted that while there is a lack of research on the topic of using space to mitigate and treat the symptoms of autism, by using feedback from parents and patients from their project at The Center for Autism and Developing Brain, they hope to develop even more advanced forms of this treatment in the future.