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Cities on the Spectrum

How Designing Cities for People with Autism Benefits Everyone

According to autism.org, “Autism is a lifelong neurodivergent condition that affects how people communicate and interact with the world.” In the United Kingdom, there are around 700.000 autistic adults and children. In the Netherlands, there are more than 200.000. Yet according to Stephanie Kyle, an architect who works at Maber Associates and specializes in inclusive design, only around 10% of architects understand non-physical impairments, while most only imagine wheelchair users. This leaves many public spaces inaccessible.

What Challenges Do Autistic People Face?

According to Elizabeth Decker, urban environments pose many challenges. This includes “ sensory overload, limited access to public transport, limited affordable housing, few job opportunities and no green spaces for people on the autism spectrum.”

All these issues are on a spectrum. For example, sensory overload can result from overstimulation of sound, touch, smell, light, color, temperature, or pain. However, autism can also result in under-sensitivity or hyposensitivity.

Webinar – Designing for Neurodiversity

In April 2024, the Royal Town Planning Institute held a Webinar about inclusive design, which can be viewed here.

Gala Korniyenko & Alex Pisha at Ohio State University

Gala Korniyenko & Alex Pisha presented the 6 Feelings Framework in the context of parks and public spaces. Users need to be able to easily perceive ways to engage with the environment. For example, green spaces need clear connections to public transport or spaces that allow for physical separation but visual connection. Parks should also offer autonomy and avoid designs that only a specific group of people can use. Overall, the park should also be designed linearly with clear signage, such as maps, directional arrows, and different materials to highlight different purposes. For example, a path could have red pavement for bikes and gray pavement for pedestrians. Additionally, the park should allow for privacy with hidden seating areas or roofed tables. Reducing the amount of conflict points can increase safety while reducing noise with berms near highways creates a calm space.

Clear Signage in a Park. The 606. by: Choose Chicago via choosechicago.com
Clear Signage in a Park. The 606. By: Choose Chicago via choosechicago.com

Stephanie Kyle, Architect and Inclusive Design Consultant at Maber Associates

As previously introduced, Stephanie Kyle conducted a prison study of neurodivergent spatial design. Her work was based on various principles, such as reducing the perceived level of surveillance and increasing perceived freedom in a room. The environment should also allow users to choose based on their preferred level of social engagement by providing dark and quiet spaces or spaces with a view of activity without necessarily being involved. This is important to prevent the users from becoming too overwhelmed. Another valuable principle is Multi-Sensory Wayfinding and Recognition of Place. This means that pathfinding should be possible with visual, auditory, and tactile cues and that these cues should be easily distinguishable to provide guidance intuitively.

Inclusive Home Design by: Maber via maber.co.uk
Inclusive Home Design. By: Maber via maber.co.uk

Kyle states that beyond just benefiting individuals with these special needs, there are also more wide-ranging benefits for the larger population. Gender-neutral facilities, logical signage, designing in-sight lines, and reducing pinch points to prevent attacks on women all create safe and friendly environments for people likely to face discrimination.

Magda Mostafa, ASPECTSS

Magda Mostafa highlighted the Autism Friendly City, conceptualized based on an urban campus as a stand-in for the city. Mostafa mentions that inclusive design needs to involve the affected stakeholders from the beginning, such as the autistic community, the estates, and the students on campus. The underlying principles for inclusive design include

  • seeing users as a spectrum
  • good design is a human right
  • accessibility, inclusion, and universal design
  • resolving conflicting needs
  • the right to universal delight
  • the idea that the community is stronger than a holistic entity
  • treating independence as a goal
  • design as the foundation for dignity and respect

These principles are to be achieved through reverse inclusion, which is the idea that the design process should first consider the needs of the individual, in this case, the needs of the autistic individual, and afterward, the needs of the population at large. As a result, you have a design that benefits the larger population. Additionally, these designs need to be able to adapt and change over time according to the needs of their users.

The result of these principles and practices is ASPECTSS, an inclusive design framework. Acoustics strategies can, for example, reduce noise from highways near vulnerable uses such as schools and residential areas. Spatial sequencing reflects the need for predictability and routine by creating logical environments with few distractions. Senso-spatial refuges across the city create an escape-scape, which allows users to have control over whether they would like to be in either an open space or an enclosed space, or in an individual setting or a group setting.

Cities should also be compartmentalized, meaning that spaces allow for a gradual shift from high speeds to low speeds and high stimuli to low stimuli. Imagine the cross-section of a street containing. From the center to the buildings that shape it, it might consist of a road for cars, then a bicycle lane, a pedestrian path, an assisted accessibility path, and finally, a transition zone and escape space in front of buildings. This transition provides opportunities for respite after particularly stimulating environments.

Another example would be providing sensory shelters after highly stimulating bus rides. Additionally, spaces need to be safe and allow for predictable sensory zoning, which means that the environment should enable users to consciously choose between low- and high-stimuli spaces. One example would be low-stimuli alternative paths throughout a city, away from the busy high-stimuli pathways.

The panel concludes that inclusive design benefits society “across religion, gender, language, age, sexual orientation, class, and more.” Inclusivity, however, needs to be designed from the start, as retrofitting non-inclusive spaces can be pretty costly. However, there are noticeable shifts already, with minor changes in supermarkets introducing quiet hours to larger changes on the operational level in cities. One example would be Brooklyn Bridge Park, which allows users to choose their own space within the park without feeling cut off. Currently lagging behind in the space of inclusive urban design are regulations, guidelines, and research.

Elizabeth Decker – A City for Marc

In 2014, Elizabeth Decker wrote her master thesis, “A City for Marc – An Inclusive Urban Design Approach to Planning for Adults with Autism.” This is an often praised toolkit for planners. Fastcompany and ASHA both highlight the toolkit’s approach to clustering services conveniently within a city, such as offering housing close to workspaces, as well as plenty of accessible green spaces. The city should also be connected with a sensible public transport system. The praise is well deserved! Not only does the thesis cover the toolkit for planners, but it also guides us through an evaluation of two existing cities in terms of their inclusivity.

The toolkit also includes, for example, vocational training facilities, employment opportunities, life skills training in education facilities, accessible health support, assisted living, and, in the US context, “ADA Para Transit Programs.”

What Did We Learn?

Planning for autism is planning inclusively. Across multiple dimensions, there is a pressing need to create safe, sensible, and calm spaces in and within cities. As society starts retrofitting our cities to be more inclusive, we are gaining more awareness of tools we can use when designing new places. Yet, as cities and shops apply their experiences in practice, research still lags behind. The challenges that people on the autism spectrum face every day provide the opportunity to design solutions with emergent benefits for all of us.

This article was previously published in the 2024 – End of Year Issue.

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