Characteristics of a Space: Understanding the Function

A space is arranged according to the user’s requirements to create an environment in design. Any design concept begins with an understanding of the user’s needs. Designers usually use the sound, visual, and tactile characteristics of space to convey the essence of the space to users and facilitate the purpose and activities of space, particularly for special needs users. Considering the different purposes for each space, it reconsiders more when it comes to accessible spaces for the disabled. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in every 68 births in the United States is affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). People with this condition can experience hypersensitivity of the senses, difficulty understanding what others are thinking and feeling, and cognitive delays. Autism is characterized by high or low reactivity to sensory input, with sensitivity to sounds, textures, and light being ordinary among individuals on the spectrum.

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Playful and colourful environment _©Brittainy Newman/the New York Times

It has been found that individuals on the autism spectrum perform poorly on tasks requiring executive functioning skills, proprioceptive, visual, and vestibular integration. This results from their general lack of coordination. In turn, for architects and designers, this means that some individuals with autism have difficulty understanding how their bodies interact with themselves and their surroundings and planning their movements within those spaces. For example, Kamran Nazeer, an individual with autism, says that he doesn’t behave as a tall person despite being tall, “As a result of slouching so profoundly, I developed sciatica in my back and left leg. It is common for me to collide with door frames and table edges because I underestimate my size.” 

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Quiet subtle surroundings _©True Media/Shannon Airport via AP/Diarmuid Greene

User’s Reactions to the Space

The research indicates that modulating the physical environment – via careful attention to spatial arrangement, acoustics, lighting, air quality, furnishings, and finishes – can help autistic building occupants relax and focus. With landmark-based wayfinding, it is easier for individuals to orient themselves by providing a clear direction toward which to move.

An individual with autism may have reduced depth of field, increased sensitivity to glare, increased sensitivity to clutter, visual fragmentation, and experience objects and their surroundings as darker and less distinct than they actually are. A solution that promotes flexibility and spatial diversity seems appropriate, catering to the sensory approach.

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Multicolor play instruments with calm surrounding_©

Designing for the Sight

One of the most important senses we perceive in our environment is Sight. However, being hypersensitive or hyposensitive to visual stimuli can make day-to-day life extremely difficult. These strategies include: 

  • Create an environment that promotes focus and reduces over-stimulation by establishing a clear and defined program.  
  • Using organic, curvilinear forms and facets or curves to soften sharp corners is a good idea.
  • Include calm and quiet areas such as withdrawal rooms and alcoves for hyper- and hypo-sensitive individuals. 
  • Blinds or translucent window films can be invaluable to reduce visual distractions from the outside world.
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Soothe environment to play and interact_©Shivani Vora, International New York Times

Acoustics Matters 

Acoustics is often considered one of the most critical aspects of designing an autistic-friendly environment. Different types of noise sensitivity can manifest themselves differently; difficulties are distinguishing between noises and their meanings and difficulty blocking out background noise. Some strategies include: 

  • The acoustic design begins with the layout of the building, taking into account adjacent spaces with similar noise outputs and limiting or grading the transition between quiet and loud areas. 
  • Building services are evaluated using a holistic, collaborative approach involving engineers, acousticians, architects, and building users to determine the best option for mechanical, passive, or hybrid HVAC systems. 
  • Flooring solutions with rubber or cushioned backs are suitable for masking high-frequency sounds. Likewise, wall coverings or ceiling treatments that use breathable fabrics with noise reduction properties can be applied to aid in sound absorption.
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Sensory Stimuli Environment for Kids _©Jeff

Sensory Design 

Sensory design can often cause distress to people with autism. The touch of another person or the dislike of the fabric against the skin can be physically painful. The inability to regulate the sensation and pressure of an object or material is a common sensitivity. Individuals can, however, experience the opposite of touch and require increased stimulation.  Some strategies include: 

  • By providing more personal space, such as wider corridors, breakout areas, the ability to retreat to a private meeting room or a retreat room, or the provision of a secure external space, such as a courtyard, an individual can better focus on their work. 
  • Use natural materials for floors, walls, and furniture, and limit the use of textures.
  • To avoid paints that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and incorporate natural ventilation. Enhance navigation through hallways by visual cues such as wayfinding floor patterns or virtual floor signage. 
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Removing visual clutter creates a calm space_© Perkins&Will

Components in the Interior

Strategic furniture selection can also be termed sensory-sensitive. To ensure maximum comfort, it is essential to avoid certain textiles and fabrics that can benefit distressing children with autism. 

  • Materials and Elements: Complexity in the detail of the building can cause visual distractions. Visual distractions can be reduced by using a limited palette of materials and reducing hard edges.
  • The furniture design tip is to use materials that are both plush and durable to withstand repeated use. In addition, those who may have a compulsive need for cleanliness may benefit from choosing sleek, easily sanitized finishes.

The Power of Choice

Kids with autism often exhibit abstruse social behavior when overstimulated. Our sense of vestibular and proprioceptive perception plays a vital role in our perception of the world around us, as it assists us to understand the physical boundaries of the environments we inhabit. As a result of their difficulty calibrating their senses, individuals with autism typically struggle to understand social mores regarding personal space.  

These strategies include: 

  • Providing balance bars and swings that encourage the sense of balance and boundaries.  
  • Provide space for indoor and outdoor sports and fitness activities. 
  • Providing clear wayfinding and one-way directions may make it easier for students with autism to navigate crowded, overstimulated hallways. Improving navigation through strategic signage and graphic design is an excellent safeguard.
Easy Accessible and Serviceable Space_©Dan Forer/Getty Images

Services and the Application

Connectivity between services is one of the most significant challenges facing people with autism and their families. The process of finding and accessing these individual services can be highly challenging for people with autism.

A building should have a straightforward layout, reflecting order, calm, and clarity, as well as good signage and transition areas. The sensitivities of autistic children to spaces may differ: some will be frightened by large open spaces and wish to withdraw into smaller spaces, while others dislike enclosed spaces. They provide a combination of larger and smaller spaces to retreat to when anxious can be helpful. Low-sensory-stimulus environments help reduce sensory overload, anxiety, and stress by separating areas like the toilets and kitchen from classrooms and therapy areas, by using non-flickering lighting, by providing pleasant acoustics, and by providing pleasant acoustics using non-noise generating materials.

Buildings that do not consider the needs of the autistic child will adversely affect the young adult and then the adult with autism in terms of their ability to function in the world.

“Autism: Where the “randomness of life” collides and clashes with an individual’s need for sameness.”  –Eileen Miller


Buildings. (2021). Designing for Special Needs Students | Buildings. [online] Available at:

Journal. (2020). Sensory Spaces: An Architect’s Guide to Designing for Children With Autism. [online] Available at:

Google Docs. (n.d.). CenterforAutism-AnArchitecturalIntervention.pdf. [online] Available at:

Dyer, E. (2020). Designing therapeutic spaces in schools 3: how to communicate safety, security and stability. [online] Architecture and Education. Available at:


Neha Lad, an Architect soon to be, adds a taste of design and creativity to the world of Architecture enhancing Nature as an added sweet dish, bringing unique flavor to the norms of Biology. She aspires to become an architect who depicts life in harmony with nature, where writing is her predominant mode of expression.