Designing a Friendly Home Environment for Individuals with Autism

Presented by: Callie Schulke, Jeanneane Wood-Nartker

Problem Statement/Motivation: At our university, a studio class focusing on the needs of children, older adults and people with disabilities engages interior design students. Within this context, and after learning about building codes and engaging in a series of empathy building assignments targeting the needs of people who are aging and people with disabilities, students design an intergenerational center focusing on the typical needs of children and aging adults. Last semester, a student began to independently research the impact of design on people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She is committed to this topic due to a brother who is low on the spectrum scale. This semester, she is engaged in independent study to develop a prototype home for an ASD child, which will be sensitive to the changing needs across the lifespan. Methods: Using Appleton’s conceptual framework of Prospect and Refuge, Human-Environment Interaction from a therapeutic focus, and the Green House philosophy developed by William Thomas, a prototype home environment will be developed and presented in a poster presentation. A premise of prospect and refuge is that humans subconsciously desire the ability to see into a room before entering it and also desire areas in which to hide inside that room as a means of maximizing control of interaction with others. This is especially helpful to children who have experienced stressful social situations rooted in ASD, because they are particularly sensitive to the built and natural environments due to sensory processing deficits with tendencies toward greater sensitivity to tactile and auditory environmental characteristics than visual (53) – and an even greater difficulty with adaption (41). The therapeutic environment focuses on positive distractions through a sense of control, access to privacy, social support, physical movement, exercise, and access to nature (19). The most difficult aspect of providing these solutions is that no two people with ASD are alike in their ability to adapt to differing symptoms, sensitivities, and levels of functioning (Gaines, Bourne, Pearson, & Kleibrink, 2016). Therefore, environments should not just address the symptoms of a person but prepare them for the challenges of everyday living (McAllister, 2010). A 2D plan and 3D perspective will illustrate practical application of numerous design features which address some of the daily needs that someone with ASD faces. A copy of the characteristics that were integrated, along with a suggested layout for the residential spaces are included in Appendix A. Analysis of Outcomes: This prototype solution will demonstrate common themes such as predictability, clarity, repetition of form, shape, pattern, and materials used throughout. Included are features such as an upper level balcony with open style railing, floor-to-ceiling windows with transparent window treatments, sidelights beside door, spaces for personal items that are orderly and systematic, sensitivity to acoustics, provision of own bedroom or personal escape space, lighting and control (natural and artificial), wayfinding that provides for clearly defined access and egress (102), orderly/straightforward and purposeful design of spaces (98-99, 103), versatile furniture layouts (alone or in a group) (108), a variety of public and private spaces (with public spaces near the entry and private spaces such as bedrooms farthest from the public spaces), sensitivity to glare, contrasting materials (89), boundary definition (138), as well as characteristics such as color, texture, orientation, sense of enclosure, acoustics, ventilation, etc. (42). One goal of this poster presentation is to receive feedback on this prototype from design professionals/educators, to guide development for a pilot study.


  • Gaines, K., Bourne, A., Pearson, M., & Kleibrink, M. (2016). Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • McAllister, K. (2010). The ASID-friendly classroom: Design complexity, challenge and characteristics. In Design research society conference. Retrieved from