DESIGN FOR ABILITY:
Analysis of Sensory Integration Toward Environmentally Adaptive Architecture
It is yet another task for architects to stimulate the experience of education, to create intrigue and endurance, and breathe humanity back into the ideals of simplicity. For children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), however, educational facilities have a difficult task of incorporating individualized, responsive, and flexible teaching and learning methods within classrooms. Although special education programs are based on the philosophy of integrating ASD children more fully into society, the built environment is not equally as responsive. For children with ASD, everyday settings can be a constant battle against invasive sensations. Their environment is not only overwhelming, but at times hostile. A poorly designed educational facility can be severely detrimental to the growth and development of special needs children, creating an even greater gap in learning potential.
“The key to [designing the environment] is the process of perception. If we look at typical perception as the understanding of, and relevant response to, the sensory input from the surrounding environment, i.e. the architectural design, we can better understand the role of architecture in autistic behavior… that autistic behavior can be influenced favorably by altering the sensory environment, i.e. the stimulatory input, resulting from the physical architectural surroundings.”
-Magda Mostafa, An Architecture for Autism:
Concepts of Design Intervention for the Autistic User
Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined as “a neurobehavioral syndrome caused by a dysfunction of the central nervous system that leads to disordered development” . Included within these pervasive developmental disorders are autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). The range of ASD varies in severity and range of symptoms; therefore, the scope of this paper will focus directly on autism, although at times, it will be referred to as ASD.
Autism is characterized by three types of “stereotypical” behaviors: lack of social skills, impairments in communication, and adherence to repetitive/self-stimulating behavior. Additionally, individuals with autism are sensitive to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and proprioceptive sensations [2,3]. Variations within sensitivities, difficulties, and severity exist within all Autism Spectrum Disorders, and although with treatment, some individuals may lead near-functionally independent lives, other will require lifelong therapy and continuous support [4,5].
To remediate the disconnect between architectural design and autism is to develop a framework of architectural design. The way in which environments may be addressed, is best stated by Magda Mostafa, “The key to [designing the environment] is the process of perception. If we look at typical perception as the understanding of, and relevant response to, the sensory input from the surrounding environment, i.e. the architectural design, we can better understand the role of architecture in autistic behavior… that autistic behavior can be influenced favorably by altering the sensory environment, i.e. the stimulatory input, resulting from the physical architectural surroundings” .
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) defines the criteria for autism to include three symptom categories: qualitative impairments in social interaction, qualitative impairments in communication, and restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Social interaction impairments include the failure to develop peer relationships, lack of social or emotional reciprocity, and impaired use of nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact and body language. Communication delays manifest as a part or total lack of development of spoken language, stereotyped and repetitive use of language, the inability to initiate or sustain a conversation, and lack of spontaneous or imaginative play. Restricted repetitive patterns, called self-stimulating activities, are defined by intensely focused abnormal interests, adherence to strict routines and rituals, stereotyped motor mannerisms (ie. hand flapping), and persistent preoccupation with specific parts of an object .
Recent studies have estimated that 80-90% of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders are identified with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID). This can cause sensory-related problem behaviors such as “self-stimulating behaviors (finger flicking or excessive rocking), avoiding behaviors (such as placing hands over ears in response to typical levels of auditory input), sensory seeking behaviors (twirling, chewing, etc.), ‘tuning out’ behaviors such as not responding to their own name or other environmental cues, and difficulty enacting purposeful plans of action” . This suggests that some “autistic behavior” is a result of sensory integration dysfunction, and if sensory integration is the process of interpreting environmental stimuli, then the external environment is directly related to behavioral responses. Dunn expresses, “In an impoverished environment, a young child will not have opportunities to develop knowledge…even with an adequate internal environment.” Thus, if the environment – the sensory experiences available throughout daily life – provides appropriate stimuli, it can support behavior and create learning opportunities .
Built Environment Considerations
It should be stressed that before any decision is made for an autism friendly environment, that the internal processes must be understood. To develop the solution for an appropriate built environment requires the knowledge and awareness of autism, its disabilities, and its needs. When the “reason, function or purpose of the student’s behavior is understood, it can be treated more effectively” . Autism Spectrum Disorders are neurobehavioral disorders that are the result of atypical sensory processing. As children with ASD interacts with their external environment, responses are developed internally that support and produce behavior. Recognizing the person-environment relationship can make the difference for a child with autism; this is the first step towards inclusion, acceptance, and independence.
The recognition of sensory-processing dysfunctions presents a myriad of challenges for designers. Therefore, it is proposed that design criteria are broken down into specific factors that relate to sensory integration and environmental stimuli. The basic built environment design considerations are as follows,
(a) figure ground, the building layout and circulation;
(b) physical factors, sensory-motor skill, acoustic quality, natural light, and the reduction of detail;
(c) classroom usage, controllable, flexible, and predictable spaces;
(d) control and safety, environmental factors and the reduction of toxins.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that has only increased in prevalence. Despite growing numbers, autism is largely overlooked by building codes, guidelines, and designers. Thus, it was the intent of this present research to open up a conversation between the neurobehavioral processes of children with autism and the sensorial qualities of the built environment.
The present research has developed a three-fold framework of conditions that create the basis for sensory-attuned environments conducive for learning: spatial arrangements, organized compartmentalization, and opportunities for integration. This framework is the design driver that propels the building form, site design, interior organization, and volumetric layering. This framework is also directly related to the targeted occupant groups.
Spatial arrangements capitalize on routine, predictability, and control – regulations that children with autism need that staff mitigators provide. Organized compartmentalization refers to volumetric layering that create transition zones and develop scale relationships. Integration methods not only relate to architectural instances, but therapy methods, programmatic considerations, and the need for community involvement and support.
What results is an architecture that functions as a treatment process, rather than a container for processing treatments.
1 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed.
2 Boutot, E.A., and Tincani, M.J. Autism Encyclopedia: the Complete Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorders. (Austin, TX: Prufruck Press Inc., 2006).
3 McAllister, Keith. “The ASD Friendly Classroom – Design Complexity, Challenge and Characteristics.”(paper presented for conference contribution Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom, 2010).
4 Boutot and Tincani. Autism Encyclopedia
5 Notbohm, E, and Zysk, V. 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s. (Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, 2010).
6 Mostafa, Magda. “An Architecture for Autism: Concepts of Design Intervention for the Autistic User.” http://archnet.org/library/documents/onedocument.jspdocument_id=10331
7 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed.
8 Schaaf, Roseann, C. “Interventions That Address Sensory Dysfunction for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Preliminary Evidence for the Superiority of Sensory Integration Compared to Other Sensory Approaches.”
9 Dunn, W. (1997). “The Impact of Sensory Processing Abilities on the Daily Lives of Young Children and Their Families: A Conceptual Model. San Antonio,” Young Children 1997; 9(4); 23-35, http://www.kumc.edu/sah/pted/nonpt/863non/dunn002.pdf
10 Katz, Idit. (2006) “Students with Sensory Integration Dysfunctions: Issues for School Counselors,” Journal of School Counseling, v4 n22 2006. accessed October 6, 2012.
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