In Boone, a college class is involved in a project that's looking at ways to improve homes for adults with autism. They're learning about how those on the spectrum may have physical and sensory needs that could be met using autism-friendly design principles.
It's a collaboration between Appalachian State University's Department of Sustainable Technology and LIFE Village, a nonprofit that provides services for exceptional individuals.
Appalachian State University professor Jason Miller is director of the building sciences program. He spoke with WFDD's Eddie Garcia about the project.
On designing for a diverse and exceptional population:
LIFE Village's mission is to find living solutions, community housing solutions for what they refer to as an exceptional population of individuals, those living on the autism spectrum. And what we tend to do as designers, or as researchers [is] we tend to put people in blocks and think of them as a monolithic group. When you have met one person with autism, that means you have met one person with autism. And there's a great range of the spectrum. From high-functioning to low-functioning individuals, those with the need for 24-hour assisted care, versus somebody who can live independently. It creates this diverse range of individuals that you're trying to provide a framework and design solution for. And so as an architect you have to get excited about that.
On design considerations:
One of the things that we have used based upon our research is that there needs to be a definitive and clear definition of spaces. And so there's often in homes for those living on the spectrum some sense of a sensory-quiet room or space. And so what we've begun to do is say why can't the entire home be that sensory space so that our customization is if one individual on the autism spectrum needs lots of stimulation and lots of natural light, well then we have lots of windows in the base building, and they can flood that with natural light, they can open the windows, they can hear the sounds outside, and that helps them feel comfortable. But another individual on the spectrum might find that to be completely devastating to their day-to-day activity, and they need it to be dark and quiet. So [with] a set of options or layers in the building envelope that allow us to close down or diffuse that natural light and create sound barriers to darken the space and to quiet the space, then the entire home can be that sensory shelter.
On whether autism-friendly home designing will grow industry-wide:
Those living on the autism spectrum in the United States are a fairly significant population group. And so I think in the same way that we have seen a growth in the health care industry and assisted care for the elderly and the importance given in design and construction firms on these types of projects, I think we'll see that starting to happen. And in many respects what drives that is the clients themselves. But I also think that there's a role for building professionals, architects, engineers, and contractors to be activists and say, 'We want to empower and change the dynamic of how we create buildings for individuals who need this type of assistance and need this type of empowerment.'