Contribution from freelance writer Lucy Wyndham
Every once in a while, the Leka Team is happy to welcome external contributors and share their food for thoughts. This post has been written by Lucy Wyndham whose husband is on the spectrum.
Stephen Di Donato
Key Aspects of Autism Friendly Spaces
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around one in six children aged 3 to 17 in the United States are registered as having at least one developmental disability, covering physical, learning, language or behavior areas. As this figure continues to rise, it encourages us to naturally consider the importance of improving the accessible nature of our homes and commercial spaces for those whose physical impediments inhibit mobility.
We are accustomed to visiting spaces that offer wheelchair access. We expect to be able to use elevators that take us from one floor to the next. It seems strange to us when we travel and we don’t see the required disabled toilet facilities enforced by U.S. law thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Indeed, physical disabilities and disability rights are so commonplace in the U.S. that many homeowners, landlords and tenants choose to make the necessary adjustments to make homes as mobile friendly as possible. While we adapt and install to make living easier for the blind, the deaf and the wheelchair bound, less attention is paid to disabilities resulting from learning difficulties, including autism.
Why do we need autism friendly spaces?
While physical disability needs are more obvious, learning difficulties and the challenges they pose on a daily basis are less obvious. Children with autism often go through what’s known as a sensory overload and when this happens they can experience a meltdown.
Meltdowns occur when there’s too much happening at once and they can be triggered by a number of everyday situations like a crowded room, a loud TV, overpowering aromas or fluorescent lighting. Autism friendly spaces, whether home-based or public, aim to keep sensory stimulation to a minimum, thus reducing the risk of sending children living with autism into a meltdown state.
Children with autism tend to develop obsessions with doors. At home, there can be a need to open and close them constantly, or to use them as a way of expressing anger and frustration. In public spaces they can be an unwanted distraction, with the child so intently focused on door activity that he or she is unable to fully concentrate on what they are doing.
Autism friendly spaces are those designed with as few doors as possible, using archways as replacements from one room to another and placing kitchen cupboards up on a high level, out of reach.
Particularly useful for children with autism, colors and other visual aids can help provide context. Play areas that use color to separate drawing activities from physical activities and reading activities can help autistic children find their way around. Libraries that use color to distinguish differences between the many books available and subway systems that use colored lines painted on the floor have the same effect. Likewise, homes in which each room is painted a different color can help autistic children decipher differences between living spaces and purposes.
When those living with autism cannot find their way around, it can be very stressful which can be another cause of meltdowns.
A real problem area for children with autism are daily tasks that require the use of motor skills. Bathrooms, both public and at home, offering automatic toilet flushes and taps can significantly improve the day-to-day experience of children living with autism.
The kitchen can be a particularly demanding space on account of all the appliances that children can potentially come up against. Indeed, kitchens can be dangerous areas when not appropriately arranged. With addictions to sensory stimulation, some children with autism are attracted to hot things. Cookers that have covers for protection after having finished cooking can be important additions to the autism friendly kitchen. A fascination for technology might also spur them on to want to meddle constantly with buttons on dishwashers, washing machines and other equipment. Autism friendly kitchens have covers that protect children from any kind of danger or distraction.
On a final note, it’s important to remember that the autism spectrum is broad. Levels of autism vary and each individual develops differently, which means autism friendly homes adjust as children grow and change too.