Spatial Design For Autism

Let’s start this with the shooting situation experienced by “The Good Doctor”. Dr. Murphy is continually blamed for the girl being shot, and yet we see him partly fixated on that green apple and partly focused on finding solutions to the girl’s deteriorating conditions. It leaves the audience wondering how exactly this kind of a brain works. In the end, his neighbour is nice enough to bring him the apple, but unfortunately the world is not as fair to those that fall on the ASD Spectrum. The obsession with which his mind was split between work and desire is just one of the many challenges he faces. Now if this “itch that I cannot scratch” (as described by Sheldon Cooper from ‘The Big Bang Theory’) is a resultant of a stimuli in the environment, it might not even be something that another human can easily identify and rectify.


This graphical representation is only for a comparative understanding among the famous characters portrayed across different web series


Experience in terms of Neuroscience


When the experience of the environment (which includes the built world, the natural world and humans and other living beings) gets overwhelming for the mind (Sensory Overload) different brains react in different ways. What the lay person understands as the ‘normal brain’ (the accurate term being neurotypical) has different, much higher limits of being over-processed as compared to a brain that might fall on the spectrum of Autism. A neurodiverse brain is more sensitive to its environment and can hear outside of the range of an average human brain. For example the audible range for an average human ear is 60dB to 95dB (Clason, 2020) whereas that for an autistic brain is below 40dB (Khalfa et al., 2004). The sound frequencies of the neurotypical range are perceived to be loud by a brain that falls on the Autism Spectrum. As a result, we see Dr. Murphy be loud in the hospital because subconsciously he is trying to match up to the volumes of his colleagues as he perceives them. Similarly, brighter tones tend to confuse and disorient the autistic mind whereas the neurotypical brain might comprehend it as attractive and vibrant.


Although the internet is filled with all the relevant keywords for ASD and other sensitivity concerns, very few actually describe what elements of the space may be created differently to allow an inclusivity for the overly sensitive human. The different parameters of design (including the ones mentioned earlier) such as circulation, nature of edges (jagged/ rectilinear/ oblique/ various radii of curvature), shapes, materials and lighting can allow or disallow the engagement of the sensitive brain in a space. Bright shades, reflective materials (sound and light wavelengths), harsh and even infrequent lighting, could all be the leading causes for triggering a sensitive brain.


Between a single sided hug and a blanket being wrapped uniformly around the body, the over sensitivity of someone on the spectrum will prefer a blanket as the blanket allows the temperature, pressure and touch sensations to be dispersed uniformly all over the body allowing the neuro receptors to transmit the signals in even proportions from the various points of contact. If one area of the skin were to receive too much stimuli as compared to the rest, it would create a state of imbalanced perceptions for the brain.


The extreme levels of sensitivity are a result of about half more synapses formed due to a lack of a particular kind of protein in the gene. An increase in synapses leads to the same information being processed in multitudes (Peng, Y et al., 2013) . The brain receives the information and cognition processes it a significant amount more. This is what leads to the environmental factors becoming overbearing for the brain and just as a computer heats up due to over-processing, the human brain begins to react in repetitive motions. Repetition, continuity and scheduling helps the autistic brain find its safe place.


ASD sensitive Architecture


As an architect curious about this realm of interaction between a space and an individual, I begin looking into how the architectural setting might influence the brain. Translating all these findings to be able to understand the neuro-diverse brain so that an architect might be able to design for it seems exciting. Architecture, or the built environment, interacts with the human through his senses. The brain perceives the signals interpreted by the senses and then follows a set of complex neurological processes which leads to the individual knowing the colour s/he sees in front of her/him or the texture felt on the skin (Zeki S et al., 1999) . There are studies that show that the autistic brain can be overwhelmed by bright colours like bright yellows and the noise levels as that of a pub are major triggers for it. Speaking of day to day spaces, I didn’t find any studies that spoke of how an autistic brain will perceive the toilet cubicle which is a standard size designed for a very small section of the human species.


Architect Magda Mostafa*, in her dialogues exemplifies the manner in which an architect is trained to design for a man of height 1.82m that can see, hear, walk, talk and is perfectly capable in all his senses. The Vitruvian Man, Modular Man and Vaastu Purusha are all samples of men defining the parameters of the human body based on a study of the average human male, which statistically is non-existent. Any other category of the human species, a man who is short, a woman, a woman who might be pregnant, a fat person, a human who might have any kind of temporary or permanent disability, or even a completely abled child are all considered in the minority and not focused upon while designing. For example, a small ramp is provided by rule of thumb as a side dish to the steps in most of the designs. The width of the ramp, the radius of curvature, the slope which are a few of the factors that will influence the functionality of the ramp are not even accurate in spaces which haven’t been designed by considerate designers. The architectural standards are laid out according to this tall, adequately weighted, physically abled, neurotypical individual, who does not even form the majority of the crowd.


The Architect’s brain is wired to design for this typical human figure, and any kind of diversity is viewed as a constraint to be followed. If only that could be changed to understanding what all other options open up due to the disability. If the designer begins to experiment with the space designs and explore newer possibilities, it could lead to innovative spaces. Just as science has shown that the visually disabled are more perceptive through their other senses, so are autistic minds more sensitive to the environment. I believe that this information, if viewed as an asset, could lead to beautifully detailed mildly assertive spaces which could help increase the sensitivity of other human minds if exposed to them for adequate time periods.



*The designer has laid out an Autism Aspectss Design Index which can help designers understand how to design for the autistic brain (ASPECTSS).



NOTE : The term ‘autistic brain’ is being used to simplify the textual content and reduce the overall reading time. The intent is solely to communicate the science behind such an individual to the designer who might seek help in designing for this type of neurodiversity.



References


Clason, D. (2020, February 24). Degrees of hearing loss and hearing loss levels. Healthy Hearing. Retrieved April 26, 2022.


Khalfa, S., Bruneau, N., Rogé, B., Georgieff, N., Veuillet, E., Adrien, J. L., … & Collet, L. (2004). Increased perception of loudness in autism. Hearing research, 198(1), 87-92


Peng, Y., Huentelman, M., Smith, C., & Qiu, S. (2013). MET receptor tyrosine kinase as an autism genetic risk factor. International review of neurobiology, 113, 135–165.


Zeki, S., Aglioti, S., McKeefry, D., & Berlucchi, G. (1999). The neurological basis of conscious color perception in a blind patient. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 96(24), 14124–14129.


Aspectss. autism. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https://www.autism.archi/aspectss