How Architecture Design Can Help Those With Autism Engage With the World

CABE and Jefferson Health’s Center for Autism and Neurodiversity and a slew of experts team up for fall course and symposium to examine architecture’s impact with those on the spectrum.

The College of Architecture and the Built and Environment (CABE) has teamed up with Jefferson Health’s Center for Autism and Neurodiversity (CAN) to create a cross-disciplinary course which will examine ways to create enabling environments for people with autism spectrum disorder.

The interior design core curriculum studio 7 fall course has 20 students for its two sections. It will also feature a collaboration with the Synesthesia Research and Design Lab from CABE: a unique, online, four-day symposium called “Neurodiversity: Building Community and Rethinking the Built Environment.”

The title to describe the course—developed and taught by CABE Interior Design professors Loukia Tsafoulia and Severino Alfonso, in collaboration with Jeff CAN’s director, Dr. Wendy Ross—is “Sentient Architecture: A Space Body Continuum.” It focuses on neurodiversity considerations in designing architecture.

Architecture and autism
Emblematic of enabling environments is the 'Synesthesia' installation for the European Culture Center Venice's Biennial 2020-2021, by Severino Alfonso and Loukia Tsafoulia.

The professors describe it as “an effort to embed and further investigate the critical questions of inclusivity, space and neurodiversity in the design pedagogies.”

The symposium, which will serve as an integral component of the course itself, aims to “stimulate dialogue amongst designers, medical field experts and people with autism spectrum in regard to the inclusivity of our current environments and with particular focus on designing for neurodiverse individuals and those with ASD.”

The trio involved in planning both held it up as a shining example of the great things which can happen within Jefferson’s Nexus Learning approach to education bringing the creative and scientific sides together in a collaborative effort.

Dr. Ross credits Jefferson President Dr. Stephen Klasko for having the vision that led to the center’s 2019 opening and fostering a culture that encourages collaborations such as this one.

“I had been searching East Falls, looking for architecture design experts to join forces with and heard about Loukia and Severino. We met and instantly hit it off,” she says. “The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is 30 years old, but there are still no guidelines for people on the spectrum, who often have a hard time with their environments.

“This is an interdisciplinary effort to make people feel more comfortable in their everyday lives. Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen a lot of curb cutouts and ramps thanks to the ADA. Now, we need to see spaces accessible to those affected by autism.”

This is truly the beginning of something that’s very important. — Loukia Tsafoulia

People on the spectrum can be impacted by spaces large or small, flickering or humming lights, and many other aspects of the area they’re in. Sensory calm-down spaces have been established, but the idea behind this course is to extend beyond these segregated spaces.

The course and symposium will pair speakers from the therapeutic fields with those with ASD and their caregivers, as well as architects and designers. They will discuss problems along those lines and potential solutions, with students looking for experimental ways to address the impact of design and develop methodologies on how to measure it.

“This is truly the beginning of something that’s very important,” Tsafoulia says. “There has been a lot of scholarly work done around issues of disability and ergonomics, but often these are seen through the narrow lenses of standardization. This is a way of bringing people who are willing to talk about their experiences on the spectrum together with design experts and those in the medical fields, and an opportunity to rethink current preconceptions.”

Architecture and autism
A fall course and symposium will focus on neurodiversity considerations in designing architecture.

She also spoke about how the course and symposium are emblematic of a forward-thinking University.

“We joined CABE as faculty a year ago, and it’s a testament to the University and its culture that we’re already able to shape this collaboration and integrate cross-disciplinary research and design methods in our courses,” Tsofoulia adds. “We hope this effort results in more scholarly work and projects, with science coming into the design world in meaningful ways.”

The four-day symposium, for which attendees can register via this link which offers a full list of speakers, will focus on Neurodiversity: Foundation (Sept. 11), Design Frameworks: Evaluation Strategies (Sept. 12), Sensory Ergo-Design: The Human Body as a Catalyst (Sept. 13), and Inclusive Futures (Sept. 14). It’s free of charge and open to the public. The organizers as billing that thematic progression as akin to the built environment with its foundation, framework, interior and future representing each day.

We’re starting to ask different questions and bringing stakeholders together to look for novel ways to address these critical issues together. — Course and symposium organizers

The inspiration for the course and symposium aligns with Jefferson Health President Dr. Bruce Meyer’s firm belief in the holistic approach of treating people, and not just diseases, which includes autism-friendly care environments like what Dr. Ross champions.

“Health-care teams should care about the person overall, not just focus on the medical needs that brought them into contact,” says Dr. Meyer, who has a son with autism. “We need to change that embedded mindset to focus on the person and how that condition impacts them. This course and symposium—which brings clinical experts together with those on the autism spectrum with architecture and design-minded educators and students—is a prime example of taking that philosophy and putting it into action.”

For the symposium, students will be asked to prepare critical questions that can guide their work during the rest of the semester in the above-mentioned design studio course that will dually be presented online and in-person.

“We think this is going to be extremely exciting, and we’re looking forward to what we can learn from this initiative,” say the organizers. “It’s not so much that we have the answers. It’s that we’re starting to ask different questions and bringing stakeholders together to look for novel ways to address these critical issues together.”

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