‘Design empathy’ builds inclusive spaces for people with autism

By Alex Bozikovic
The Globe and Mail, April 15, 2015

GlobeMail_Architecture_AutismFluorescent lights. A wall painted bright yellow. A smoke detector that keeps beeping through a meeting. These are things that you might encounter in an office or a classroom without much notice. But what if you saw those fluorescent lights flickering intensely and heard them emitting a painfully sharp buzz? Or if that yellow wall seemed to be vibrating, like a broken computer monitor? Or if the bleep of the alarm was the loudest sound you could hear?

(Left: The Northern School for Autism in Australia, designed by Hede Architects, is built specifically to support students on the autism spectrum, Hede Architects)

Many people with autism have this sort of discomforting experience every day. Their experience of sensory inputs, such as sound, light and textures can be radically different, and apparently innocuous design details can be powerful barriers to their comfort and success, from school to the workplace and beyond. Among designers and researchers, there is growing interest in understanding how to recognize the needs of this group – which is at least 1 per cent of the population. And at the heart of autism-focused design is one central insight that can benefit everyone: that we all experience the world in different ways, and that being able to choose a comfortable environment can be a powerful thing.

“What I have always found is that when you design for autism, the general population benefits,” says A.J. Paron-Wildes. Read more…

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