Awareness of various forms of autism has increased in recent years, but the impacts of the built environment on those with this affliction – particularly children – is not frequently addressed in design studios. In his project for the Autism Collaborative Center, student Mike Neuhalfen investigated specific activities that people with autism struggle with. Through this research he identified four categories of response: Stimulation, Retreat, Generalization and Socialization. This allowed him to focus on design strategies for two problematic spaces at the ACC: the family lounge and playground.
“The family lounge was a wreck when I first saw it”, Mike states. “Here books and toys were spread out throughout the space. The furniture itself was did not look clean enough to sit on, especially the couch. Amy (from the ACC) told me that this room can get very loud, so much so that some parents would rather wait in the hallway.” Mike’s solution was to create two spaces, one short term and the other long term.
“The overall design focus of the short term waiting area is to have a space that is easy to clean, fun and reduces the noise level for the rest of the room. This area is closest to the entrance for a few reasons; ease of access for children and so children do not run through the room disturbing the rest of the people in the space. On one wall I propose repurposing the old chalkboard, and making it friendlier for children to play with by locating it near the floor. The other wall has donated pvc pipe with different textures. The different textures, along with the variations in shape of the pvc, offer a lot of different types of stimulation input. The trellis system above helps designate where the play area starts and stops, reduces the noise, and creates a smaller space scaled for children. The colored cubes are durable seats that double as a toy. This allows these seats to move around freely, and to be played with freely without making the space look like a mess. The bench is also made from pvc, and acts as a seating space for parents to watch their kids while creating a physical barrier to control where the kids can roam to. The children’s books are now located above the countertop, making access to them limited to parents. This would drastically decrease the amount of stuff that is normally found on the floor. Finally, I have also provided a traditional waiting area, which can help promote generalization skills. This area allows parent to observe their children’s treatment sessions.”
“The long term waiting area has a different function entirely, intended to be a relaxing area for parents”, Mike notes, addressing the stresses commonly endured by parents with autistic children. “The relaxing area itself is strait forward with the introduction of 2 new couches. This would allow for more than one parent to lie down. I am also introducing a lot more plants to family lounge to reduce noise. The plant type selected is areca palm which has been proven by NASA to increase the air quality of the space by as much as 30%. A set of table and chairs also share this space, which allows family members to surf the internet, socialize with other parents, and eat in the space if desired.”
Mike found the existing playground to be highly underutilized, and conversations with ACC staff highlighted a desire to make the outdoor space available for families, as well as for therapy sessions. “Currently they are in the process of building planter boxes on the western most side of the field. This will help define a large open area taking up more than 50% of the site. This would allow for kids to roam freely while still being observed from one specific spot near the east entrance to the building.” Along the bounding path are three retreat spots along the fence line that would allow a child some privacy if overstimulated, while still under discrete observation. Mike has proposed locating ‘forts’ in these three locations constructed from the abundance of picnic tables donated to the ACC. “Currently the playground is only truly used during two summer months with SPLASH Camp”, says Mike. “This is why I propose an apple orchard in the south most part of the playground, giving the ACC something they can use in the fall months.”
While it remains to be seen as to how many of Mike’s recommendations will be fully implemented, his work with the ACC has highlighted a set of possibilities which are achievable on a limited budget.