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.