Autism inclusive urban environments design principles to support sensory and cognitive navigation.

For the attention of: Urban designers, landscape architects, regeneration practitioners, Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) advocacy groups and all those involved with the design of the public realm.

The problem: A growing body of research proves that city green spaces provide positive physical and mental health benefits, however, access is not universal. Cities are planned for and designed by neurotypical people and can neglect neurodiverse and disability needs. For many people with Autism Spectrum Condition, cities can be difficult to navigate due to the cognitive and social challenges inherent in the urban built environment and therefore limits inclusive health benefits of urban environments.

What we did and why: This paper aims to identify the impacts of the built environment on the walkability of a city for those with Autism Spectrum Condition. Using film, photography, and recordings, two alternative journeys from a transport hub to a public park are analysed. A focus group consisting of parents of children with Autism Spectrum Condition aid the investigation by analysing the material gathered, before suggesting potential solutions to the identified challenges.

What our study adds: Suggestions to support inclusive access to meet Autism Spectrum Condition needs include:

  • Transition zones

  • Provision of dedicated quiet places in the city

  • Compartmentalisation of large spaces

  • Utilising technology before journeys alongside improving safety and signage.

Reflecting on the findings, this paper provides a number of urban design principles for the built environment which consider those with Autism Spectrum Condition that can support a shared urban built environment to be more inclusive for neurodiverse groups.

Implications for city policy and practice: Urban policy has recently started to engage with making places inclusive for those with cognitive impairments such as Autism Spectrum Condition. Often measures to make cities more ‘autism-friendly’ are limited to the sensory environment of individual buildings and staff training and neglect to consider broader Autism Spectrum Condition needs, therefore environments are hostile to navigate. This research offers suggestions for planning practice to create the city as a sensorium through inclusive design that helps meet Autism Spectrum Condition sensory needs.

Full research article: Autism spectrum condition and the built environment by Keith McAllister, Aine McBeth (@ainemcbeth) and Neil Galway (@neil_galway)