Autism-Friendly Health Care Design Considerations

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and to promote autism awareness in our community we are sharing a few health care design considerations that benefit pediatric patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is the name for a group of developmental disorders. ASD covers a wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability.

SBA is in the midst of programming and designing a multi-story pediatric ambulatory care center that will include spaces specifically designed for patients in the autism spectrum. In our research for the project, we found that much has been written on designing schools and residences for school-age kids with ASD, but less frequently found is articles about the potentially frightening experience of visiting a doctor, therapist, or surgeon.

Health care environments never really become familiar, so meaningful wayfinding and the elimination of environmental stressors become even more important when designing for this patient population to create comfort and reduce anxiety.

Key considerations include the following:

  • Although there are some basic similarities across this patient population, all ASD patients are different, be very careful not to make broad assumptions.
  • Noise is the most critical and universally-experienced stressor and should be dealt with at all levels, from exterior noise to mechanical systems to finishes.
  • Glare is painful for many, and visual clutter contributes to information overload. 
  • Provide mini-havens or escape spaces and privacy for families who need their children to remain calm and quiet.
  • Avoid environments that encourage running or flight.
  • Ease transitions between different functions and activities such as from parking to reception, from reception to elevators, from elevators to waiting, and waiting to diagnostic/treatment areas.
  • In building planning, provide familiarity, predictability and simplicity.

Architect Magda Mostafa paved the way for much of what we know about design guidelines for children with autism. After being assigned a project to design Egypt’s first educational center for autism, she quickly realized that not much existed to create an evidence-based design. This led her to conduct a series of studies so she could create a set of guidelines. Mostafa's latest work: the Autism ASPECTSS™ Design Index, is a matrix to help guide design, as well as an assessment tool to use for post-occupancy evaluations.

Some excellent research and reporting has been done since Mostafa’s groundbreaking 2008 study, by Paron/Wildes, Whitehurst, Sanchez, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Temple Grandin's prolific writings and on-going publications, and the design and healthcare communities’ understanding continues to grow daily. 

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