Autistic Friendly Urban Design


Full paper:


Nothing about us without us
Who: Chan
Journal: Urban Science
Published: 2018
Title: Neurodivergent Themed Neighbourhoods as A Strategy to Enhance the Liveability of Cities: The Blueprint of an Autism Village, Its Benefits to Neurotypical Environments

Conceptualising an Autism Village

At current, autistic people try & live their best lives in neurotypical environments, despite the difficulties this brings.

This paper wanted to conceptualise what an “autism village” might look like.


Autistic people frequently struggle with feelings of social isolation; how could changing our conceptualisations of dwelling spaces change this?

Globalisation is rapidly changing contemporary cities, making it difficult to have a high quality of life. Some reasons for this include confusing network systems, dysfunctional social spaces, competitive employment environments, and a lack of control over ones living environment.


A meaningful environment is one which allows an individual to function & thrive. However, this does not appear to be the aim of urban spaces at present.

Everyone has the right to enjoy the city they inhabit. The trend of globalisation is rapidly changing our cities, and threatening their liveable qualities. Urban cities are becoming more exclusive and less adaptable.

The consideration of neurodivergent people in urban design does not benefit neurodivergent people alone, it benefits everyone.


Autistic people could act as huge contributors to the improvement of quality of urban spaces. The design of autistic-friendly environments would produce environments in which different populations can co-exist & thrive together. This would not only benefit autistic people, but it would also allow neurotypical people to see thriving autistic people which would help to combat negative conceptualisation of autistic people, and would also benefit all individuals due to the accessible nature of the spaces.


All autistic people interviewed for this study expressed a dislike for their neighbourhood; particularly the noise of vehicles & neighbours, and crowded, hot, and smelly places.

They all cited a house in a town with attached land as their ideal dwelling space.

Those who knew another autistic person in their neighbourhood appreciated their presence.

Many preferred to live alone, finding living with another person to be overwhelming, regardless of their relationship to them.


There are already design guidelines for autism friendly environments, including ASPECTSS by Dr. Magda Mostafa. This stands for acoustics, spatial sequencing, escape, compartmentalisation, transitions, sensory zoning, and safety. However, these do not consider the different life stages, and are often focused on the school environment.


Autistic people are as individual as neurotypical people are; the ways they relate to their environments differ, and their individuality influences their distinct spatial environment. The spaces & objects we appreciate often reinforce our sense of identity & reflect our deep inner feelings. Autistic people can draw a lot of comfort from the spaces which surround them.

Therefore, the design of autistic friendly spaces does not rely on hard-and-fast rules, but on a framework to be interpreted with relation to the individual.


The global neurotypical society is unwelcoming to autistic people. They face stigma, discrimination, and human rights violations. Despite an eagerness to work, autistic people are often un- or underemployed, and struggle to find work which supports their needs and utilises their skills. They are often in part-time jobs on minimum wage. This makes financing a home a major struggle. Therefore, autistic friendly living environments need to coincide with meaningful opportunities which allow autistic people to function & thrive in society.


Autistic people, like neurotypical people, have many strengths. Autistic people often have one or more “special interests”, an interest which they can independently reach an expert level of knowledge in. Continued engagement with these sorts of interests are very beneficial to autistic people, although the opportunities to engage with these often drop after the end of education. Only a small percentage of autistic people have managed to find permanent employment which utilises their interests.


Features of an Urban Environment


Paths are how people reach a certain destination. Paths should have identifiable markings and have visual clarity. People should feel safe and secure on paths. Alongside paths are streets; improving the quality of paths & streets not only benefits autistic people (some of whom have difficulty judging their safety around traffic, for example), but also all other users; pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders, of all ages and abilities.



Edges are the boundaries between two phases, e.g. a fence or a bush. These are often utilised to protect neighbourhoods against crime and against disturbance, including noise, which can cause stress. Fences can be utilised to prevent someone from wandering too far away, and can provide a physical a physical form to hold onto should one become overwhelmed or disorientated. However, edges can cut the city up into fragmented districts. The autism village utilises special interest social spaces at edges, which presents an opportunity for inclusion & social cohesion.



Nodes introduce people to their destination. In the autism village, the nodes are accompanied by windows, so one can assess whether they would like to proceed into the space or not. This can help to reduce overstimulation.


These are references used by individuals for orientation & recognition. The need to recognise & pattern our surroundings is deeply rooted in our past, and has wide practical & emotional importance. Designing sequential landmarks provides emotional security.



Districts are determined by physical characteristics which have thematic continuities. These physical characteristics can be a whole range of components, from texture, space, building type, degree of maintenance, etc. Districts are also determined by their meaning to the individual, and should embrace its inhabitants individuality. A feeling of belonging is essential for an individuals wellbeing. A feeling of belonging is being able to share ones interests with others, leading to a sense of community (“the sense that one was part of a readily available, mutually supportive network of relationships”). This includes micro-relationships between individuals, but also macro-relationships between different social groups. The tangible aspects of a city & living environment must be balanced with meaningful opportunities from which one can sustainably function.


Features of Autism Friendly Environments

Productive respite spaces

A safe space does not need to be an indeterminate quiet & neutral space. Interest-themed spaces can also act as safe spaces. The positive emotions associated with engagement with the interest can act as respite from overstimulation & overwhelming emotions. All the participants involved in this study express happiness & excitement when engaging with their interests. “[Beside the excitement, I] also don’t feel lost.”


Spaces as Sources of Livelihood

Autistic friendly spaces must provide & support a good quality of life. This includes options for them to independently sustain their future. Work & recreational activities provide a sense of meaning & accomplishment. Therefore, start-up spaces would be good for autistic friendly environments. For example, those fond of music could earn money through performance or teaching; those interested in IT could run an internet & gaming café. This increases self-esteem and allows the opportunity for financial gain.


“Interest-Thing” Social Spaces

Special interests can be linked to social spaces. Alongside typical social space furniture (i.e. chairs & tables), there should also be access to tools associated with interests. These social spaces could also be utilised for skills workshops, and spaces where autistic people with similar interests can support one another through engagement with said interest. All participants in this study said that they liked meeting other autistic people, especially those with similar interests.


Productive Vocational Skills

Research shows that vocational independence supports autistic people to thrive. Autistic adults can be supported to utilise activities that they find enjoyable to find meaningful employment which can support their wellbeing and independence. However, workplaces are designed for neurotypical people and the sensory & social environments are often damaging for autistic people. Therefore, autistic friendly spaces need to extend to the workplace environment and autistic people should be supported to utilise their passions towards this.


Spatial Articulation in Relation to the
Productive Vocational Skills

The simulation of workplace environments, and how one acts & applies skills within a workplace environment, can help to support autistic people in entering the workplace. Having a predictable environment is supportive to autistic people. For example, a replica of a café or restaurant which is occasionally open to the public can support autistic people with getting used to an environment & in developing the necessary skills to run such an environment. Incorporating simulated workplaces into autistic friendly environments can increase their understanding of the necessary vocational & social skills required in such a workplace, while also acting as a platform for neurotypical & autistic people to interact, which has been shown to decrease feelings of depression & anxiety.


The Village

The home has powerful physical, psychological, emotional, & spiritual significance. Autistic people often feel that their home is their “sanctuary”, the one place they have control over. Autistic peoples wellbeing is significantly impacted by their home & neighbourhood.


Proposed zoning of the autism village


Zone 1:

Located close to the site entrance, zone 1 consists of detached bungalows to cater for autistic individuals who are independent and prefer to live alone.

Adjacent to these are the start-up spaces which give them the opportunity to make a living. The start-up spaces are separate from the living area to encourage community socialisation, which has positive impacts on mental wellbeing.


Proposed bungalow (detached) with private interesting space


Zone 1:

The detached bungalow housing features a private social space where the individual can spend time with peers if they choose. This is located at the entrance to the home, meaning they can select if anyone enters their home, and can socialise without others intruding on their safe space.

Each home has an open green space at the front and back. The one at the front makes the home identifiable, and the one at the back acts as a personal, quiet, open space.


Zone 2:

Zone 2 consists of duplex units, which house those who wish to live independently in the vicinity of others. The housing wraps around a large open space which accommodates a variety of leisure activities, including sports and other opportunities for physical activity. This area can also support the sensory seeking needs of some individuals.


Proposed duplex units with shared interesting space


Zone 2:

The duplex units are larger than the bungalows; they consist of single & multi-storey units which individuals can choose based upon how many others they wish to live with. Between two duplexes are “interest-thing” spaces, which can be utilised to open small businesses which relate to a special interest.


Zone 3:

This zone provides cluster homes, for those who need more support in the home. This zone includes the simulated workplace environments at the main entrance, and this also acts to control who is able to access this living space. Zones 1 & 2 create a buffer between this housing and the site entrance, providing safety for those who may be prone to wander but have difficulty with keeping themselves safe for example near roads.


Proposed group home with simulated workplace environments


Zone 3:

The cluster homes are access controlled by an entry way. They contain the simulated workspace environments, and are enclosed by huge open green spaces, which can be utilised for sensory gardens, vegetable farming, and animal therapies.


Between the three zones, the housing differs, but within each zone it is consistent. Each home is simple & minimalist, with a large open-plan space, as this allows for much customisation by the individual. For example, those who prefer more space can keep their home open plan, and those who prefer a smaller space can compartmentalise their home. Large spaces also have the flexibility to be changed as an individual ages & their preferences & needs develop.


The proposed residential setting of the autism village is designed to support the wellbeing of autistic individuals, by providing an appropriate place to live as well as opportunities for people to utilise & hone their skills & strengths. The community is open to the wider public on certain days so they can access the businesses. This is because autistic thriving is not just about the individual, but also on the acceptance of autistic individuals by the wider neurotypical world.



All participants were Filipino. The effects of religious practice, beliefs & traditions, ethnicity, or sexual orientation were not explored in this study. While the author is aware of the critical issues autistic people face in financing a home, this study also did not assess the cost or funding required to develop the conceptualised housing typologies.

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