Probably the biggest change we experienced as a family with a special needs son was puberty. With puberty and adolescence came more passive-aggressive behaviors. With age came strength. Now, put the two together, and you have more aggression, whether shown through self-harm or harm to others. The second change involved intentional manipulation of behaviors or reactions but seemingly without any rational thinking. In other words, our son believed if he punched the wall, it would create enough threat that he would maybe win something even though he did not realize that he was losing the battle.
It is important to arrange the environment of the individual with ASD to create the best outcomes for all.
The School Environment
It is common to be confused by the constantly changing and sometimes seemingly irrational behaviors of children on the autism spectrum. While there are clear patterns, there are definitely behavioral changes in these children, just as there are in their typically-developing peers. So, how should our schools’ built-environments prepare for these changes?
As children get older, they grow bigger and thus need more space. This is especially true for those with ASD, not only because of their physical size but because of their lack of sensitivity to the personal space of others. This lack of understanding causes stress and conflicts for those involved with the child with ASD. So, when we design school environments for these growing children, we need to make spaces larger and more durable. The more regimented and clearly delineated things are, the better the chance for greater behavioral success and learning.
Sometimes students with ASD exhibit hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder; they take things and hide them or gather them and hoard them in their backpack or locker. That is why it is important to understand that the locker requirements for these kids might be very different than for those seen in traditional schools. Our son once took an axe head to school. Think about putting mesh screens on the locker doors or having open shelves in the classrooms for additional monitoring by teachers. The desks should not have hidden compartments. The teachers also must store their own items carefully in the classroom to prevent “stealing.” Each room should have sign-out boards so everyone knows who has what. That way, there is clear accountability even for borrowing something as simple as a pencil. Rarely does the pencil find its way back to the teacher because frequently the student with ASD is not held accountable and lacks a sense of consequence for failure to return things. (My son started his school year with 7 pencils and had 25 within 30 days.) Understand that nooks and crannies offer lots of options for hiding things to the ASD child. The oddest places become significant to the child for hoarding opportunities. Once when climbing up on my kitchen counter to get a spider web, I discovered that our son had started to hoard food on top of the cabinets behind the molding. All sorts of various food items with no consistency or logic were laid across the cabinet tops. I believe he was saving for a rainy day!
As an architect, I always remember that children with ASD require constant prompting or redirection. No matter how many times you may remind them of things, prompting is still required because learning and recall are sometimes simply not there. For example, our son, Matthew, wore the same pair of underwear and socks at camp for 7 days in a row even though he showered and had replacement pairs. It was not an obsession in his case to wear the same things over and over. It was more his inability to recall at the moment of changing that he should not put his dirty stuff back on. So, how does this information impact us as architects? We need to integrate constant prompts throughout the school environment. Most often these prompts can be handled by signage, but we also need to get more creative. There should be signs at the bathroom doors that state “Wash your hands before leaving.” Such signs need to be clear and unambiguous. Tile patterns on the walls with big bright arrows can point to the sinks to catch their attention and remind them. We can create railed circulation paths much like waiting areas for fun park rides to help them in cafeterias so they don’t enter the wrong way and crash into others. Brightly colored tile squares on the floor can indicate where we want them to stand and wait for such things as their medications. We can paint rooms so they are named by their color and are easier to find and remember.
There are several other design strategies that can be implemented into K-12 school settings to help children and teens on the spectrum to be more successful during their learning years. For example, many children with ASD struggle with attention issues. The following design solutions specifically reduce distractibility. Entry doors to classrooms should not be directly across from one another, thereby eliminating a visual connection between the rooms. This also helps prevent noise transfer between rooms. Classroom windows need to be placed carefully. Make sure the windows are high enough so that seated students can’t see out and be distracted by individuals or movement while still allowing for natural light. Also, the glass in classroom doors should be minimized to reduce outside distractions. Finally, desks should be oriented away from any outside activity.
The heating and cooling system should allow each classroom to be controlled separately so that the teacher can create the most comfortable environment. Lighting should eliminate glare and flickering movement. In addition, teachers should be able to control lighting to allow levels to be adjusted to the tasks and daylight. Finally, each classroom should be sound isolated from the adjacent spaces to help reduce or eliminate noise transfer.
Because some students on the spectrum have explosive issues, such as intermittent explosive or bipolar disorders, building materials should be durable. Further, when children with autism experience puberty, their physical strength can be used in unexpected ways. The following materials can be selected for increased durability − color-thru floor linoleum tile and stained concrete floors, wall protection panels, linoleum wall panels, spray-on durable paints and corner guards, impact resistant drywall, plywood sheathing under drywall, and concrete block. While many think that such durable materials appear hard and institutional, today’s materials include creative colors, patterns, and textures that can be combined to create a warm, colorful, and inviting environment.
At times, students with ASD benefit from quieter resource rooms for time-outs in order to become less over-stimulated and regain self-control. These rooms must be durable and sound isolated. Most importantly, these spaces should be separated from the public areas of the school to provide the child with greater dignity because students in time-out can feel shame or guilt when friends walk by. In other words, such rooms should be away from the public because it removes stimulation and removes the disruption from others in adjacent spaces.
Acoustics need to be managed for children with ASD because loud noises can be distracting and disturbing and trigger actions that are viewed as inappropriate behaviors. Both general sound levels and white noise can exacerbate learning problems for individuals with auditory issues. White noise from mechanical and electrical systems can interfere with a child’s ability to properly process sound. Architectural applications that can help manage levels of sound include sound absorption materials as wall or ceiling panels, carpet in selected areas, rubber balls on the bottom of furniture legs, baffles and banners within the classroom, fabrics on furniture, and airflow silencers.
Children with ASD can also respond differently than their typically developing peers to colors and patterns. Colors, patterns, and contrast can prevent sustained attention. Minimizing the offending stimuli can help improve some students’ ability to perform in other areas. For others with ASD, however, bright colors offer successful stimulation and help draw focus. Also, patterns, whether bold or soft, can be used to help guide students through a space by clearly defining circulation paths. Multi-sensory stimulation through the use of color and patterns can also assist with sensory-deprived brains, and it is shown to improve sociability. Finally, cheerful colors simply eliminate the impression of an institution, which is of utmost importance in building self-esteem in these children.
Students with ASD often don’t recognize personal space requirements between themselves and other individuals. Such a misunderstanding can lead to intense conflict. As children, we learned how to interact with others, to take turns, and to understand the distance we should stand away from people depending upon our familiarity with them. We also learned what to do or how to react when others entered our personal space. Children with autism are not aware of this social dance. Children on the spectrum frequently come too close to other individuals, causing an invasion of privacy and discomfort. This direct contact can lead to a feeling of disrespect or, in the extreme, an explosive event. School spaces can be designed and frequently visited objects such as book racks, water fountains or cubby holes can be placed to reduce “path crossing.” Corridors and student work areas should be wider. Student desks and frequently used stations should be positioned to reduce conflict. For example, the chairs of computer workstations should not back up closely to the desks of other children. Further, in an ideal situation, entry doors and exit doors would be clearly defined through the use of color to limit personal clashes. Finally, the most exciting changes to the classroom environments for children with ASD are innovative technologies and multimedia because they accelerate the learning and communication abilities of children. By implementing interactive technology, school programs can successfully support collaboration, communication and engaged learning.
Playground areas provide students on the spectrum with an opportunity to explore social contact. Playground areas can stimulate and provide physical opportunities for those with gross motor skill challenges if they include swings, climbing bars and slides, especially if they are designed with sensory rich colors and textures. In addition, a wide opening between play structures allows for easy access and supports personal space needs. Finally, outdoor activities such as landscaping and digging provide physical challenges and assist in developing vocational skills for high school students. In addition, security on the playground is important as it provides a sense of great comfort.
The Work Environment
Ideally, children with ASD are prepared during their school and home life for adulthood. When my ASD son hit his academic ceilings, I focused on life skills training for independence. I gave him opportunities to learn how to do things on his own. When he shifted into a school with a vocational program, he was well prepared because of the activities he had participated in at home and through a waiver program in our state.
As an architect, I have designed and assessed several vocational-based adult programs. When I think about employment for adults on the spectrum, I see two opportunities. One is a vocational-based day program in which adults with challenges come to a relatively large building for the day and work on projects such as assembly or photocopying. The second is employment in the community, whether though a service-provider with support or independently, depending upon the functioning level of the individual.
For the first environment, I create easy and clear passageways to minimize confusion for arriving individuals. The walls and floors have warm and welcoming colors. Natural lighting further warms the darker areas and connects the individuals to the outside. The walls are protected with durable materials for those using wheelchairs. Typically, these vocational facilities provide a variety of “centers” to accommodate levels of work intensity and abilities of the individuals. There is also often a recreation and leisure space and a music therapy room.
When it comes to employment in the community, here is what employers can do and here is what parents can ask for. First, the environments should be minimally confusing, simple, and warm. The circulation spaces should be wide, and access to materials and objects used by staff should be concealed in cabinetry and closets to reduce distraction and potential “stealing.” If the student/employee with ASD can socialize, then the opportunities to further support these skills should be sought. When we think of our son, the following settings seem great to us:
1. Library for refiling books
2. Hospital as greeter or discharge attendee (he happens to be a social butterfly)
3. Hotel as bellboy or door greeter (same as above)
4. Hospital or hotel laundry for folding (he is great at this as I have supported this skill since he was 12)
I worry about placing my son in retail shops with lots of items allowing lots of opportunity for distraction and taking things. This type of employment would set him up to fail. I would look for employers who have a personal connection to an individual with ASD so that they have the compassion and patience that may be required on occasion.
So, the key to a successful environment for employment clearly depends upon the strengths and challenges of the individual and the parents understanding the most supportive environment for the student’s personality and abilities.
The Home Environment
Through careful design, areas can be defined as safe for the siblings and safe for the child on the spectrum. These defined places should be private for each child and should not be entered by the other children without permission. To clearly demarcate spaces, color or signage can be used. For example, our son is easily distracted and often allows his desire to take things to rule over his recall to respect others’ personal spaces and belongings. Therefore, siblings’ rooms should be off limits unless an invitation is extended by the owner. A social worker once wrote about Matthew, “we love him, but he is a con man.” He is capable of taking precious belongings of his siblings, hiding these objects and saying he never saw them or describing how he got them if found out. The frustrations and anger in our other children escalated quickly. Like the little boy who cried wolf, Matthew is capable of making up many stories with no truth to any. Thus, by default, he was always the first blamed for any missing item.
If your child with ASD hoards, it is important to minimize the amount of furniture and thus extent of hiding and storing opportunities. Allowing the child to collect more only reinforces the obsession with objects which carry little value after stored away. Thus, limit the closet area and the dressers within the room.
Matthew self-mutilated when frustrated. He used corners of furniture and counters to slam his head and walls to slam his body. In hindsight, I wish I had installed impact resistant drywall. He also threatened us by slamming the glass of his windows − never quite hard enough to break, but tempered glass would have been a wise choice. As our son aged, he developed a passive-aggressive way of threatening his family whenever he was frustrated, such as using his fist to hit walls or flipping loose objects to show dominance. Securing items within the general living space is a good idea if it is possible. Minimizing clutter further helps reduce opportunities to break things, either intentionally or through unsafe curiosity. If you want your child to have the opportunity for success, admit the greatest failures and eliminate the objects or lock the rooms where these failures most often persist.
Allowing children on the spectrum to explore things of interest helps them develop their confidence and support their unique interests. However, clear boundaries must be defined for these interests. In our son’s case, he loved to crack a bullwhip. After learning the hard way, we designated a “safe” zone and made it clear that moving beyond the defined boundary resulted in the loss of the play activity for several days. We defined the area by the edge of the fence to a positioned birdbath and birdhouse. Defining the boundaries with physical objects makes the area as clear to your child as possible. In more severe cases, full perimeter fences could be installed.
Ideally, the bedroom of the child with ASD should be placed above the master suite with the staircase passing directly by the master bedroom door. Further, if the flooring and stairs are wood, this allows the parent to hear any night activity above and monitor the child’s movements throughout the night. Having two staircases in our circa 1740 home definitely aided in reducing conflict. Our other son used mostly the stair closest to his room while Matthew used the stair next to our master bedroom. If these two growing boys had crossed paths on the stairs shortly after the discovery of an invasion of personal space, a true physical outburst would have occurred.
A separate bathroom is helpful because the bathroom habits for a child on the spectrum can be time consuming. Because actual toilet activities can take up to 20 minutes and an entire role of toilet paper, a plunger nearby is a must. Having the door cut a bit short to allow a parent to see only the feet of the child helps to monitor his or her activities in the bathroom. Why was this important? It turns out that our son was not taking a shower but rather standing outside the shower and wetting his head. Once we discovered this, I watched his feet with my listening heightened as I was waiting to hear how the water fell in the tub – whether muffled by falling on his body first or just hitting the floor of the tub.
What about allowing your maturing child with ASD to develop some level of independence? If it is possible to design the house so that a safe room is accessible from the outside but does not allow access to the rest of the house unless you grant it by unlocking a door, I would integrate this into the home. This permits the teenage high-functioning ASD child to begin to develop a level of self-reliance and independence. This assumes the ASD teenager is high functioning enough to be left alone for short periods of time with neighbor observation. Just as with typically-developing children, this makes them feel mature and builds their self-confidence. This cannot be done for all ASD children but can be done for some. Each parent must judge their growing child’s abilities. When our son was 17, we realized that if we gave him the opportunity to be responsible, he would be (at least 80% of the time). The catch is the space they are allowed access to cannot contain any items that can cause curiosity and then danger such as a cooking stove or tools. Access to the family room is a safe place as long as the family room can be contained from the rest of the house. Having any gas in the house with an open flame should not be done. Curiosity, more often than anything else, led our son to get into trouble. I knew when he was young and was discovered playing with matches that all things that created the opportunity for fire had to be removed from the house. The ruling theory for our house was “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” Gas cooking and gas fireplaces cannot be used in the home. Unsafe items need to be locked up during the early stages of development. We used our gun safe for not only firearms but also scissors and lighters. As Matthew matured, these daily use items were brought back into the kitchen but to this day are left in hidden areas.
When selecting hardware or fixtures, try to select simple pieces with minimal ornamental elements because children on the spectrum often like to take things apart and bright white “hot” and “cold” caps on pretty faucets will not last long if they can be pried off and hoarded away. Picking can often be an obsessive behavior as well. I have observed where one child picked at flecks in the wall causing the removal of drywall. Minimally-textured materials are more appropriate. Place only hardware with no locking ability on the bedroom and bathroom doors of your child’s rooms. This will prevent them from accidentally or purposefully locking these doors.
Chaos most frequently occurred in our kitchen area especially when it came to eating. Our ASD son often eats with his mouth open causing his younger siblings honestly to get grossed out. This lasted for so many years that even as Matt’s siblings aged, they anticipated him having these poor table manners before he even started to eat. The funny thing was that he did not do this when he sat with strangers. The impact of social pressure and expectations elevated his abilities. This even made his siblings more frustrated because, in their minds, he only did this poor behavior to them and they saw him as lazy. Often, if he was verbally attacked, he would actually intentionally make the situation worse by exaggerating the behavior.
In arranging the kitchen in the home of a family with an ASD child, I would take the following steps:
1. Designate a cabinet on the edge of the kitchen for the child with ASD and fill with allowable and appropriate snacks for the child. Also, add dishes that the child likes. Our son had a special coffee mug and painted plate.
2. Place the kitchen counters 6 feet from each other to allow ample space for circulation.
3. Ideally, provide a separate small undercounter refrigerator dedicated to the child with ASD.
4. Provide a dedicated drawer filled with safe utensils for the child. Make the drawer and cabinet a different colored cabinet so it is clearly identifiable by the child.
Why should you do these things that appear to create a clear separation? To instill a level of independence in the child develops a sense of accomplishment. Just as a typically-developing child states to his mother, “no, I can do it!” so should parents support their ASD child in every situation that allows them greater independence.