Helen Pedder 20 June 2019

Buildings for those with autism

According to a report by the All Party Parliamentary Group and the National Autistic Society (NAS) produced in 2017 there are approximately two million adults, children and their families affected by an autism diagnosis in the UK; around one in 35 people.

The NAS defines Autism as ‘a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.’ It is a spectrum condition that shares certain issues but can differ between individuals.

According to an APPG Report in 2017: ‘Some autistic people also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels of support.’

Autism.org.uk says: ‘Autistic people have persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction. They may also have restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests. Many autistic people experience over - or under - sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain.’

Since the Autism Act of 2009 there have been improvements in diagnosis and the provision of support and services. Although with regards housing there are still a large number of adults and children housed ‘out of borough’ in inpatient settings, separated from family, home and locale.

Also, from our experience, there is a scope for improvements to existing accommodation that would increase independence and ease of living for both individuals and the families living with autism.

The Bubb report ‘Winterbourne View – a time for change’ produced in 2014 recommended that with the right support and accommodation even those with severe autism could remain within their community in small units with less expense on the public purse, an increase in personal dignity and development, and a likely reduction in issues of referrals to hospitals or the legal system.

While there is undoubtedly pressure on local authorities to meet general housing needs, the use of inappropriate accommodation for those with autism on all parts of the spectrum can lead to issues ranging from personal distress, social isolation and regression to physical damage, costly repair works and unsafe places for staff.

Working in this area we have been talking to local authorities, NHS Trusts, housing associations and charities who need to write autism specific briefs for small housing developments and support facilities for the autism spectrum. The spectrum covers a wide range of needs with no two autistics having the same requirements, but there are a number of common issues that could be included in the brief for architects designing new and refurbished buildings. We offer the following pointers on just some of the issues to be considered.

Selecting an appropriate site:

Identify the needs/support level of the group to be housed. This significantly affects the layout of the building and its outside areas, boundary treatments, parking area required.

Location: ideally a pocket site within an established residential area giving sufficient space for a cluster of supported flats embedded in an existing community.

Proximity to public transport and amenities (local shops, library etc) with pedestrian and bicycle friendly routes.

Avoid sites near heavily trafficked roads, flight paths, sources of consistent or intermittent loud noises

When assessing cost viability, consider the savings on existing accommodation and staffing as well as the construction cost.

Site layout and massing:

Clusters of a maximum of 6-8 one bed flats or individual rooms with shared communal spaces. All with appropriate support accommodation for staff.

Consider orientation avoiding strong sunlight into rooms, layouts that avoid constant overlooking into the site and vice versa, and site routes that permit private access to flats

Not all flats/rooms need to be wheelchair accessible. However internal space standards need to be 10-12% over the national space standards to give more movement space to suit poor movement control.

Domestic scale and non institutional appearance: these buildings need to look and feel like typical homes.

Consider low maintenance and robust materials as visits for repairs can be distressing.

Design with the level of support to be provided in mind, including safe exit for staff.

Separate different room uses: combined uses within one room can be confusing as spaces are identified with their use.

Entrance and circulation:

Doorways and corridors are points of change from one space and activity to another. Thresholds can be difficult to cross and transitions should be gradual.

Design layouts to avoid unexpected or sudden encounters, confined spaces and forced proximity.

Halls and lobbies are rooms with no use designation other than circulation which can be good for recalibration.

Natural and artificial lighting:

Careful selection of fittings and light sources is essential with even light spread using indirect lighting.

Daylight wherever possible.

Views out to greenery are appreciated as calming.

Strong shadows, sun glare and sharp contrasts between dark and light cause visual confusion.

Consider robust sun shading systems.

Flight or hide:

When sensory or social overload gets too much someone with autism will need to get away from the overstimulation and recalibrate – either to the natural environment or a personal retreat. There are often two responses, flight and hide.

Consider layouts that permit walking a circuit which some find de-stressing.

Create safe retreat places: this can be a bedroom, the flat itself, or in shared accommodation a dedicated sensory room.

In conclusion, the ideal outcome with considered design of new and refurbished homes for those with autism is the provision of safe supportive environments near family and familiar places where the person with autism can grow in independence, social abilities and self esteem.

As the APPG report states: ‘All people on the autism spectrum (can) learn and develop. With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.’

Helen Pedder is from Pedder & Scampton Architects, who specialise in designing buildings for people with autism.

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