Leeds School of Arts

Autism-friendly adult accommodation: Students and external experts collaborate in a forward-thinking design project.

A group of first year BA (Hons) Interior Architecture and Design students created new narratives and original forms involving critical design thinking and problem solving in a remote collaboration with specialist expert autism practitioners.

Path along the edge of woodland leading into a brick built farm style building

Emulating design practice

In design practice, interior designers work as a team. To help emulate this approach, the project emphasised how learning through joint working with others is imperative in the education of design students. Dedicating time to understanding human behaviour and the environment, and the sensory needs of autistic individuals, enabled the students to apply a deeper level of critical thinking to their design projects. 

feedback from autism professionals

“I work with services all over the UK and there can sometimes be almost a little bit of putting people with autism away or categorizing them into a certain area. So, I think starting with not hiding people with autism away, as that is the basis of behavioural analysis and what we are trying to do is to create that level of equality. Everything that you did was very well intentioned, and there were lots of clever moves.”

- Tom Hilton, Senior Behaviour Analyst, Henshaw’s Specialist College.

“…the occupation focus is the bread and butter of what we do as occupational therapists, you definitely nailed that. I loved that you give people a responsibility, a role and a meaning, a purpose in life with the companion dog, and I have done a lot of animal assisted therapy, and I see the benefits which dogs can have with people, from calming, to giving the person responsibility, to helping them understand emotion and empathy, it can be extremely useful.”

- Louise Holdsworth, Specialist Occupational Therapist and Advanced Sensory Integration Practitioner, OT4me.

Abstract explosion of building

Jenny Mills - 'Adult Autism-friendly Accommodation Project: Incorporating dog agility circuits into the interior and exterior spaces, for a dog companion'.

“My number one issue when I am working at a specialist college or education provider, generally, is that if the session is not happening, or the person is not interested in the session, they end up doing nothing, when they end up doing nothing, they end up doing something which is generally undesirable, and then everyone is running around with their hands in the air. Whereas in an environment like yours, it is almost as if there are layers of just 101 things that you could be doing instead, so if one thing is not happening, we have got another thing, which increases choice and autonomy, and when you have got those things which sequence or behavioural change, they are very easy to teach… 

“It goes back to values, people spend far too much time trying to eliminate certain behaviours with people with autism and they are focusing on the wrong thing, what we need to focus on is people’s happiness, engagement, and quality of life. If you focus on those things, increase those things, you will have good outcomes with people. It is not just trying to solely remove things, it does not work because you cannot remove things, it makes life more difficult for the person and it becomes more restrictive, and you have poor outcomes. I liked that both student projects, had those values though out, all the way through from the start to the end.”

- Tom Hilton.

“She has thought about everything throughout the design again, I liked the envelope seating, and the rocking type seats that can be used to get some vestibular input, that they can be calming, and I liked the fact that there were separate bedrooms at either end of the building, so that one person is not going to disrupt the other person if they are making more noise, or if they are having a difficult period, if somebody likes a quiet environment… 

“She has thought about card making and making that into a social enterprise when we are providing meaningful occupations to somebody and something which can be rewarding in terms of monetary value or just rewarding in the activity itself is incredibly important... 

“and she has kept it meaningful and purposeful and liveable as well which I think is always important.” 

- Louise Holdsworth.

Collage of textures, colours and a top down plan of building

Natalie Ferreira - 'Adult Autism-friendly Accommodation Project: Incorporating arts and craft spaces which harvest and reuse rainwater to make paper pulp/sensory art cards as a social enterprise'

Feedback from students

“Having the opportunity to present to two professionals, Tom and Louise, who work in the field of autism meant that we not only gained immediate feedback on our projects, but also an understanding of the importance of presenting to those (clients) who are not designers.  Learning how to communicate our ideas in a clear and uncomplicated manner, means that we can take these skills and use them in future professional jobs. The confidence which I have gained by doing this is something which I am really grateful to have taken away from this project.”

- Jenny Mills

Black and white image of several people on a Zoom call

Students Presenting to Professionals on Microsoft Teams

“Working alongside professionals within the field of autism and associated learning disabilities gave me the chance to discuss designing but on a deeply empathetic level and I now feel very informed on the subject. Being able to work so closely with my tutor, Joan Love, and have her continually offering support and providing in-depth resources has helped me to fully understand the core principles of autism-friendly design and behaviour informed design. 

“The project ended with a fantastic opportunity to then present to Louise and Tom, who are very positive and proactive when speaking about the sensory issues, autistic people face. It was interesting to then have feedback from two health professionals who do not specifically just critic the design, they offer an opinion based on their knowledge and skill set. I know from this project I now understand the importance of continually assessing, reflecting and problem solving when developing a design which is inclusive for all people.”

- Natalie Ferreira

More Information

For details about the course and to apply visit the BA (Hons) Interior Architecture and Design course page

Joan Love

Senior Lecturer / Leeds School Of Arts

Joan Love is a senior lecturer and an artist who has experience of interior design in architectural practice.  Her research explores autism-friendly design containing a special interest in spatial transitioning environments.  

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