Thursday 22 April 2021

Designing autistic spaces

One thing that my identification/diagnosis has revealed to me is my mostly unwitting role in designing autistic (or, more precisely, autism-friendly) spaces.

During my academic career, I have often been in the fortunate position of being asked to create spaces. On every occasion, I have been the Director of a Centre or an Institute, or the holder of a large capital grant that has given me the right to dictate how the space should be designed. To give some examples, I have built: two recording studios, a multidisciplinary research lab, a performing arts space, a usability lab, and an enormous institute full of digital technology and experimental equipment. Furthermore, I have frequently been asked to advise on the construction and design of spaces outside the university. Back in 2009, for example, I designed a digital gallery/workspace in a local arts centre, and I have recently been consulted on the design of a laboratory in a science park. 

Now, I should stress that I have no qualifications for building and designing spaces. However, I do have some quite strong opinions about how it should be done and since I was “in charge” in these situations, I took some key decisions. What I now realise is that every one of those decisions arose directly from my autism. Of course, I had no idea at the time what was going on!

In my life, I have always navigated the world by trying to find autism-friendly spaces. So, for example, on arriving in an airport, the first thing I would do is to seek out the multi-faith room. This is generally a quiet space with low-level lighting and low stimulus colours, often wood. It would have a transient population, so there was no real danger of unwanted social interaction (unlike churches, where there is always someone who wants to chat). As a child, at school, I created a “war gaming club”, which had only two members. The reason was that I could then take occupancy of a basement room that was otherwise unused. After a time, it became apparent to the other member that this was really about something other than “war gaming”, so he left. I had a silent room all to myself. There are many more such examples. 

When designing spaces in universities, or elsewhere, my main priority was to control the environment and especially the sound and lighting. All my spaces had the kind of sound-proofing that would be used in noisy industrial spaces. In other words, they were as close to silent as I could get, whether they were recording spaces or not. The colours would be simple - a white, or a pale blue - and uniform. This would extend to the ceiling and even the floor, but with differences in shade or texture making it clear where the boundaries were. This is important for me, because my proprioception requires location points to be able to function. Lighting would be LED and not fluorescent. As with many autistic people, I can see the flickering of fluorescent tubes and find it very disturbing. There would be no irregular patterns, no asymmetrical features, no irrelevant “features”. The spaces needed to be predictable and functionally elegant. They also had to be flexible and have technology built in, including silent air conditioning to remove any smells (again, my autism means that I have always found certain smells intolerable) and moderate the environment to a steady temperature. 

Now, when I look at the BBC’s Sensory Environment Checklist I see that these spaces of mine all conformed to those standards. I used them for my personal wellbeing, but what was interesting was how much neurotypical people also liked them. It is often that way: the environmental changes that suit autistic people also suit neurotypicals. Luke Beardon wrote: autism + environment = outcome. I now understand that I have somehow been aware of that formula all my life. 

Most recently, a local media/arts centre started talking to me about extending a space that I had designed back in 2009. This is a digital gallery. It is set off from the main area by a corridor, so many people do not go into it. I created a beautiful autism-friendly environment in complete contrast to the bright, buzzy cafĂ© nearby. It has a floating floor, silent aircon, LED lights, and buff walls that can easily be repainted. Over the years it has hosted many superb exhibitions and installations and the directors of the centre obviously assumed that its purpose was solely digital art. Little did they, or I, realise that it is also a space for autistic people to retreat to when they arrive at the centre. Interestingly, they are now asking my advice once again about how to extend it. This time they are talking to me not because of my academic position or expertise in digital arts so much as my identity as an autistic man. I’ve been very frank with them about the purpose of the space, how it could attract a new autistic audience, what is required of the extension to make its dual purpose clear. We’ll see what actually emerges, but it is a sign of how far we have come that such things are now being openly discussed and in a most positive way.

Monday 12 April 2021

Looking back on lockdown

Over a year of lockdown has passed, so I thought it would be interesting to reflect on my experiences from an autistic perspective. Needless to say, these are only my experiences. I do not speak for all autistic people, many of whom have had a very different time, as I well know.

There are many things I like about lockdown. It has made me realise just how challenging it has been to travel into work each day, for example. The sensory issues in commuting alone have drained me far more than I realise. I’ve got used now to ending the day with more spoons, which is a welcome relief. Some days I used to get home from work practically unable to speak or think, or I’d catch the wrong train and end up in Kettering, or some other disaster. Now I end the day tired but relaxed in a familiar environment, which is lovely.

This has meant that I can be somewhat more flexible about routines. Before lockdown, I would follow a very strict sequence of actions every morning in order to conserve spoons for when I arrived at work. So, the morning routine has included the same ordered sequence of washing and ablutions, dressing and eating, packing up my bag and leaving the house, every day for years. My main problem in lockdown has been that Frank Cooper’s Original marmalade, which I eat in Spring and Autumn (Fine Cut in Summer, and Vintage in Winter) seems to be completely unavailable. So I am eating Fine Cut out of season, which is a bit disturbing, but in the grand scheme of things not a major problem.

I generally find social interaction online preferable to face to face. It is entirely predictable and managed. There are no unstructured meetings or casual encounters. Whether it is a management meeting, a class, or just a “zoom coffee”, I know about it in advance. I enjoy that I don’t have to work at reading body language. Again, it has been lockdown that has made me realise how much effort that took every day. People often say that autistic people cannot read body language. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I spend a large amount of time reading body language, because I understand that it is an important method of communication amongst neurotypicals. I’m not saying that I really understand it, but I am pretty good at spotting details and often notice things that others miss. It does require a lot of effort, though, so it is a great relief not to have to do it.

However, this absence introduces a new anxiety: have I now lost the skills to be able to decode body language and facial expressions? Those would take an enormous amount of work to rebuild. I have noticed that I am losing the ability to pretend not to be autistic. Now, many people will say that’s a good thing because masking is bad and we should be authentically ourselves. I would not disagree with that point of view, but the problem is that I then lose confidence in my ability to interact socially and start to become anxious about meeting people at all. Over the last few months I have started to get nervous before I meet someone. This is unusual for me and potentially a big problem in my line of work. 

There has been a major downside in interacting online with my students. They simply refuse to switch on their cameras, so I would not recognise any of them if I met them face to face. This is very strange. They know exactly what I look like, but to me they are just circles with initials inside. This creates quite a pressure on what will follow when we finally do meet. One other problem with online interaction is automated captions. Because of my hearing impairments, I do rely on these quite a lot. But the error rate is quite high and they can create as many barriers as they remove. An example of technology not being good enough for its intended purpose.

One benefit of all the extra energy I have saved up is that I have become much more active as an autistic advocate, both at work and in the world at large. Again, I think lockdown has contributed to that development. It has been easier to sign up for things, such as advising the NHS in Birmingham, or giving a presentation about my experiences to an EDI conference at Edinburgh University (both things in my calendar for this month) when I know that I don’t have to travel to a new place, meet people, etc.

My main anxiety at the moment is the end of lockdown. I really do not want it to end. I am not looking forward to going back onto campus with its chance encounters, random events and sensory challenges. My university’s campus is pretty typical. Every building is a mess of flickering fluorescent lights, asymmetrical patterning, haphazard “design”, high arousal colours, confusing signage, noisy spaces, drifting smells, bizarre heating, reflective surfaces, and so on and so on. On the plus side, my office is nice and quiet and hidden away, so I can be fairly surreptitious. If all the buildings were more autism-friendly it wouldn’t be so daunting, but I’m afraid they are pretty horrid. I’m trying to change that through my work on the disability action group, but it is not easy.

Overall, then, I find lockdown quite agreeable, and I am not aware of any negative impact on my mental health - quite the reverse, in fact. But I do have some anxieties and I am noticing some changes in myself. To what extent these will become a major problem remains to be seen. My survival bag, which would never leave my side before lockdown, has now been gathering dust in a corner for over a year. I am going to have to get it out soon and check that everything is fully charged up and up to date, from the noise-cancelling headphones to the personal air purifier, from the sunflower lanyard to the clip-on shades, and so many more bits and pieces that I use to make life tolerable. That will be a big moment!