Professionals who design building structures typically account for perceptual or cognitive challenges experienced by individuals with various disabilities. Sometimes these challenges are referred to as the “invisible disabilities” within the inclusiveness community. Moreover, when designers are asked to consider the users’ perceptual or cognitive disabilities, they often rely on intuition rather than on an agreed-upon, science-based approach. Consequently, the need for objective standards is paramount, given the increasing number of residential facilities, therapeutic clinics, and employment settings currently being designed for those with autism and other disabilities.

autism design

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates the need for inclusive design for those with disabilities in order to properly access building structures. 1  Much of ADA is non-specific about perceptual and cognitive disabilities. I urge professional designers to bear in mind various populations who suffer from perceptual or cognitive challenges. These challenges include aging, dementia, autism, mental illness, ADHD, PTSD, SPD, blindness, and deafness. Individuals with these challenges often experience numerous problems, including sensory hypersensitivity, limited sensory sensitivity, cognitive problems, and anxiety. Such issues affect at least 40% of the general population 2. Consistent with the intent of the ADA, individuals do not have full access to a building’s structure if they cannot adequately process information in their surroundings, which can lead to challenges in navigation, attention, workability, comfort level, and much more.

In 2006, Orfield Labs began a 10-year journey researching perceptual and cognitive disabilities from a user perspective, starting with aging3, dementia4, and autism. This research included thousands of hours of discussions with top academic and research experts associated with each area of sensation (e.g., vision, hearing), and each disability (e.g., aging, autism, mental illness). Eventually, we realized that one should not design for a diagnosis, but rather, one should design for the best predict¬able user experience. We also concluded that approximately half of the general population need quiet and simplicity, and the results of disability-based design are preferred by those in the “neurotypical” world

Accessible Design: Top Misconceptions

  1. they are more expensive
  2. they are more suitable for those with disabilities
  3. they require different solutions for different disabilities
  4. they inhibit many design choices
  5. they require specializations on the design team
  6. they are less likely to have an aesthetic design

All of these assumptions are incorrect, and they underlie the failure to solve many of the design challenges for those with disabilities.

Building Costs and Design Research: The Good News

The Architectural Research Consortium states that it is possible to build any modest or large-scale building can with a similar budget for both individuals with and without disabilities. For example, a well-designed interior is more important than an expensive façade and an elaborate public entry. A few years ago, the Facility Management Journal (FMJ) featured two of our buildings that were built on these premises.

During our discussions with many individuals active within the autism community, we came across a common perspective: “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Of course, this implies that one should not generalize any aspect of autism to the entire autistic community. Considering this, when designing a facility to support those on the spectrum, is nearly an impossible task. However, after several years of study as well as discussions with numerous experts, we formed an alternative view on autism. That is, the variability among human beings, with and without autism, is roughly the same. In other words, “when you’ve met one person, you’ve met one person.”

Designing the Fraser Clinic

The building design of the Fraser Clinic, located in Woodbury, Minnesota, is the first autism project worldwide that involved quantifiable perceptual performance standards that focused on the sensory sensitivity of children and adults on the spectrum. Prior to working on this project, we spent much time discussing daily challenges, with an emphasis on sensory sensitivity, with two dozen individuals with Asperger’s syndrome. Their personal experiences were very helpful when forming our approach to designing a user-experience building environment.

As a result of our approach to understanding individuals with autism as well as designing structures for them, we focused our efforts on those who are hypersensitive to sensory sensations in their environment. We do acknowledge that there are at least two other “sensory” groups in autism, including those who are hypersensitive and often crave sensory stimulation (i.e., “sensory seeking”), and those who do not have any sensory challenges.

The Process

The Fraser Clinic, directed by CEO Diane Cross and her facilities manager, Dale Raasch, began working with Pope Associates, an architecture firm, on designing a building that would become a branding statement for Fraser. They also consulted with A. J. Paron-Wildes, who is a designer, the mother of a young man with autism, and the author of a number of books about design for autism.6 Ms. Paron-Wildes helped balance the structural design with personal experiences encountered by individuals on the spectrum. Orfield Labs was in charge of reducing, or eliminating, potential sources of sensory-related stress and tension within the clinic. This process involved user measurements of acoustics, daylighting, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality.

We did not want individuals to perceive the clinic building as imposing, institutional, or perceptually noisy. The primary goals were to create a general familiarity and comfort within the clinic and to avoid anything that would trigger hypersensitivity. Our first recommendation was to develop a building façade that was more reflective of the sensitivity of children on the spectrum since many of them suffer from anxiety and are fearful of unfamiliar settings. Staff at Fraser agreed with us, and the design of the new façade was low-key and suggested a welcoming and peaceful building environment.

Furthermore, the design for all spaces within the clinic was nominally similar since many, if not most, individuals on the spectrum have an aversion to change in their environment. As a result, the building had, in general, a more monolithic design. That is, wherever the individual is in the building, he or she will perceive the spaces as relatively the same. We also avoided using patterns or complex color schemes, graphics, non-representational pictures, and wall coverings. In many ways, our approach was to design a peaceful and straightforward Zen-like environment.

Building Design Standards

Based on research and experience, Orfield Labs established a set of building performance standards for those with autism and special needs. In general, the goal of these building standards is to reduce perceptual noise. These standards were formulated based on ten years of studying perception and cognition, 20 years of collaborating with national RBD groups such as The Open Plan Working Group and the Architectural Research Consortium, and more than 30 years of hosting national design-research conferences.

The performance standards were based on visual design research and involved defining, modeling, and measuring building environments with respect to perceptual preference and comfort. The results from these analyses provide recommendations regarding the amount of brightness and visual distraction while optimizing feature daylighting along with a pleasant view of the surrounding.

More specifically, the building’s perceptual performance standards include:

  • Visual: Reflectance, pattern, gloss, color, appearance, lighting level
  • Aural: Noise levels, HVAC noise, privacy, reverberation (liveness), footfall noise, speech
  • Thermal: Drafts, stagnant air, humidity, thermal asymmetry
  • Olfactory: Presence of noticeable smells
Editor’s Note:

The Autism Research Institute is actively involved in sensory-related research for the past 30 years. An important question is: How can we translate our understanding of sensory challenges to improving the quality of life for those on the autism spectrum? For the past decade, Steven J. Orfield, a colleague of Dr. Stephen M. Edelson and founder of Orfield Laboratories, has focused his efforts on designing sensory-optimal residential, school, and workspaces for those with autism as well as other populations.

Author Biography

Steven J. Orfield, founder of Orfield Laboratories, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has been involved with architectural and product consulting for more than four decades. He began his career by taking a human factors approach to architecture, with an emphasis on acoustics and lighting in relation to their impact on users’ experience.

Within 10 years, Orfield Laboratories became the first independent multi-sensory building performance consulting lab in the U.S. Orfield has authored or been featured in more than 350 national and international articles, has written two commissioned white papers for ASID, has organized more than 100 international conferences, and is the founder of the Open Plan Working Group, the Sound Quality Working Group, and the Architectural Research Consortium. He can be reached at or at Orfield Labs (612-721-2455).

1. ADA Reference for Standards Document,
2. 2016 Annual Disability Statistics Annual Report, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics (hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care and independent living).
3. Seniors Housing and Care Journal, Steven J. Orfield, Aging Research, Design Education, and the Perceptual Limits in Seniors Housing Design: Development of a Research-Based Design Model for Better Aging Environments, Volume 21, 2013.
4. Seniors Housing and Care Journal, Steven J. Orfield, Dementia Environment Design in Senior’s Housing, Optimizing Resident Perception and Cognition, Volume 23, 2015.
5. Olmsted County Real Estate Assessment, Steven J. Orfield, Facility Management Journal, September 2014.
6. AJ Paron-Wildes Books, Interior Design for Autism from Birth to Early Childhood, Interior Design for Autism from Birth to Childhood to Adolescence, Interior Design for Autism from Adulthood to Geriatrics, 2013, ASID.
7. OPWG/ARC Design Consortium XXX, Universal Design, Research from Senior Design and Related Fields, September 25-26, 2012 at Orfield Laboratories, Inc.