Designing for Diversity: A Comparative Study of the US and UK

Presented by: Kristi S. Gaines and Angela Bourne

The transition to adulthood is challenging for all individuals, but even more difficult for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Entitlement to public education ends and choices must be made regarding education or vocational training, employment, housing, and social involvement. In the U.S., a projected 500,000 children with ASD are expected to reach adulthood within the next 15 years. Currently, there is a limited amount of appropriate housing to fill this need (Ahrentzen, 2009). Additionally, aging parents are concerned with how their children with ASD will function in society when they are no longer living (Weeks, 2009). 

The design of the physical environment is increasingly recognized as an important element in the development and comfort of people with ASD.  Sensory integration theory provided the theoretical framework for the study.  Site visits to living communities for individuals with ASD in the US and and UK were conducted by the researchers to examine the connections between how people with ASD see and approach the environments in which they live. Ten sites (five in each country) were visited for data collection.

The results from this research project identified design features that promote independence, safety, and improve the quality of life for neurodiverse individuals. Common themes and characteristics in homes were observed as well as disparities in the types of accommodations available between the US and UK.  Practical and relevant design recommendations were developed.

The outcomes support the needs and the numbers reported in the “Valuing People” study (2001) which states that due to the number of children being diagnosed with autism, adult services must be established quickly or the demand for such services will result in a crisis. 

The aim of this project was to formulate best practices for the design of living and learning spaces for individuals with autism throughout the lifecycle. Practical and relevant findings resulting in physical environment considerations will aid designers, parents, teachers, therapists, and all who work and live with children and adults with ASD.


  • Ahrentzen,  S. (2009). Advancing Full Spectrum Housing: Designing for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders.  Arizona: Arizona Board of Regents.
  • Augustin, S. (2009). Place Advantage: Applied psychology for interior architecture.  New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons. Inc.
  • Weeks, L. E., Nilsson, T., Bryanton, O. & Kozma,  A. (2009). Current and future concerns of older parents of  sons and daughters with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Policy & Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 6(3), 180-188.     doi:10.1111/j.1741-1130.2009.00222.x.


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