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Neurodiversity - Autism-friendly environments and good practice in planning

Aired on Thursday 15th April, the RTPI North West & London Regions held a joint event with Neurodiversity in Planning as part of a webinar series on designing for Neurodiversity. This session (Part 1) discussed designing for Autism-friendly environments and good practice in planning.

Chaired by Sue Manns (Immediate Past President of RTPI ), the panel was drawn from three continents, including built environment professionals with first-rate experience in research, planning and design for Autism. The panel of speakers included the following:

  • Magda Mostafa - Architect & Associate Professor, University of Cairo, Magda has developed the ground-breaking and award-winning Autism ASPECTSS Design Index, which is the first evidence-based set of Autism specific design guidelines worldwide.
  • Gala Korniyenko - PhD Candidate at the City and Regional Planning Program, The Ohio State University, Gala is a member of the research team that developed the ‘Planning and Design for Autism: Six Feelings Framework’. The Framework aims to help create Autism-friendly urban realm.
  • Alex Pisha - Landscape and Architectural Designer, City Planner, and Writer based in New Haven, Connecticut, brings knowledge from designing inclusive urban realm and green spaces and their importance in Neurodiversity inclusion.
  • Stephanie Kyle - Architect & Inclusive Design Consultant at Maber Associates, Steohanie advises on best practice for inclusivity and specialises in neurodiversity inclusive design such as designing for Autism and dementia.

At the start of the webinar, Sue Manns, introduced the session by discussing how many of our current public spaces don’t meet the current requirements for Neurodiverse individuals and that we need to look at how we can improve the experience of these spaces for people with Autism. The webinar plays reference oo two sets of evidence-based Autism-specific design guidelines in effort to raise awareness to Town Planners who design public spaces, to make them a safe and accessible space for everyone.

Stephanie Kyle Inclusive Design from an Autistic Perspective

Highlighted from her own experience as an Autistic person with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), Stephanie experiences difficultly on a daily basis in buildings and urban space and has channelled this into becoming an architect and working towards making inclusive spaces.

Stephanie undertook several research projects on existing inclusive design practices and found that many architects were still focused on physical disabilities but weren’t looking at non-physical impairments, with only 6.2% saying it was a factor in their design process. As a result of this, Stephanie’s final design project created Neurodiversity design guidance, using Prison design as a baseline through their on high average Neurodiverse demographic. Key summaries and outcomes from this work included:

  • Ensuring a stepped hierarchy of privacy and personalisation.
  • Providing multi-sensory wayfinding.
  • Allowing for daily and seasonal variation in intensities and tones of light.
  • Providing dynamic views of internal and external activities.
  • Controlling privacy and immediate environments.
  • Designing for spatial organisation and socialisation.
  • Provision of environmental preferences in larger spaces.
  • Flexibility in function and site configuration.
  • Deinstitutionalising massing and identity.
  • Focusing on community and support.

Magda Mostafa ASPECTSS for an Autistic friendly City

In collaboration with Ireland’s National Autism Organisation, Magda looked at how spaces like University campuses can be more inclusive to Autism and Neurodiverse users. Together they undertook consultation with Autistic users, parents, advocates, experts and campus therapists looking to address what barriers and support elements the built environment has and what Autistic users would like to see in spaces. A key conclusion from this research is that we need to start prioritising those with unique requirements first as it has been shown and shown again that the majority user will also benefit from Neurodiverse design of agility, flexibility and adaptability.

From another 2013 research, Magda talked through three (out of seven developed) key principles to Neurodiverse design, in summary:

  1. Looking beyond building regulations, mitigation strategies for noise sources such as high speed transportation need to be addressed for all urban spaces and particularly when is resides near a low stimulation function including residential and schools. Urban ‘zoning’ and operational strategies are key ways to look at this issue.
  2. Sensory Zoning. Calls on spatial organisation of land types and uses and co-ordinates them to their sensory output and not their function. This would include grouping visual qualities, materials and textures, smells and odours to reduce the mixing of high and low stimulation areas.
  3. Escape scape. Creating an interior and citywide network of ‘escape scape’ and sensory refuges in various forms.

Gala Korniyenko & Alex Pisha Inclusive Landscapes

Providing an explanation of the ‘6 Feeling Framework’, Gala and Alex discuss what each feeling means and how this framework can guide Town Planners and Urban Designers to design urban and green spaces for everyone.

  1. Connected: Helping the user perceive ways in which to engage with their environment, including clear connections to transport networks and surrounding built environment.
  2. Free: Providing spaces that are flexible and agile. (Example: Hinge Park).
  3. Clear: Creating easily understood spaces with clear wayfinding and access routes.
  4. Private: Ensuring there is space for users to have a secluded and relaxing moments, all users benefit from this from down time to a sensory break.
  5. Safe: Something that everyone needs, wants and benefits from, designers have a crucial role in providing safe spaces for people for all to be able to enjoy.
  6. Calm: Reducing sensory pollution through reducing excessive noise, particularly important in green spaces in heavily populated urban environments.

The overwhelming consensus from this webinar is that every single user can benefit from leading with Neurodiverse requirements, through creating calmer, multi-sensory and private spaces. Moving forward in planning, the use of ‘Inclusion Advisors’ at early project stages should become the norm to move towards leading with inclusion in mind.

This event is accessible through both recording and transcript here: