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Designing for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)   2 comments

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Designing for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

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The master plan for housing adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder includes 24 individual units, a recreation building, administrative offices and clinic. 
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Special needs providers sometimes differ on the approach to designing for those who are visually impaired, autistic, deaf, disabled, or otherwise atypical.   On the one hand, if you create an environment that is so special and customized, you risk making the individual dependent on the building and send the wrong message to society that this person can’t function without “crutches”.    On the other hand, if you say the best policy is to ask the individual to adapt to any building situation without changing the current building norms, you do no service to those with limited adaptation skills and you don’t advance the design practice as a whole.  Unfortunately, I have been in the middle of this argument many times by the various representative constituent groups I bring together for design retreats at the outset of a new special needs building design.   It has been our firm’s skill at walking this fine line that has led to our acceptance in the special needs community as an advocate and friend.

If a building is a training center or rehabilitation center, then a variety of building experiences with various levels of customization are in order.    In this way, the training center can prepare an individual for any level of outside world experience.  If the building is a permanent residence, then more customization can contribute to an improved daily experience.  For example, in our design for a residence of Adults with Autism, the users told us that the two most important considerations for them were light and sound.  While Autism is complex and can’t be narrowed down to two senses, it is sometimes helpful to at least address the most significant requests of the users.   The Autistic often can’t separate stimuli such as the background noise of an exhaust fan from music on the radio.  The overload would be comparable to trying to hear your cell phone while standing on the yellow line in the middle of a six lane highway.  Your only thought might be “Just get me out of here!”  So a place to retreat from too much light, too many sounds, or any overload, is not a crutch as much as a necessity.

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 A gazebo serves as a focal point for the therapy flower gardens and a place for informal peer interaction.  The arrival experience is much like any of the estates in the area. 

.                                  . Understanding the mind of the those who are developmentally disabled or have Autistic Spectrum Disorder requires letting go of preconceptions, re-thinking common design practices, and being guided by the needs of the user. 

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Unfortunately, much has been written about designing for special needs, but very little fact-based, post-occupancy research has been done on buildings designed for the Autistic.  That is why, we begin every design by visiting the best completed projects and interviewing the users to learn what works and what doesn’t.    I can remember a mistake I made twenty five years ago when my proposed townhouses design had two entry doors that were designed for Adults with Autism face each other under a cute little arched portico.  My Autistic friend (and an informal plan reviewer) balked at having to face someone else should they both leave their apartments at the same time on a bad day.  What was a delightful combined breezeway for me, was a potential threat for someone else.

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Many of the features of the design for ASD and DD are concealed in the construction.  For example, multiple lighting levels, operable drapes, sound partitions, remote exhaust fan motors,  and  safely designed built-in furniture are developed as the design progresses.
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DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS  designs for those with special needs.

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