This project extends research into the sensory living needs of adults with autism to the design of outdoor spaces, giving guidance on how to create a positive sensory experience.
The restorative qualities of gardens and the benefits of interacting with nature are widely documented. However there is a lack of guiding principles within the context of design for autism.
This study is the third in a series of design research projects with the Kingwood Trust, aiming to improve living for adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) through a better understanding of their needs, aspirations and physical environment. This year, research concentrated on the design of outdoor green spaces and on the special interests of adults with autism that can be addressed within them.
Outdoor spaces are often under-utilised areas in residential housing yet hold great potential for both active and passive pursuits. Gardens provide a rich sensory experience but their dynamic and changing nature can present challenges for a person with autism. Difficulties in processing sensory information and distinguishing between foreground and background need to be considered when planning the layout and flow of a garden.
Special interests are one of the defining characteristics of autism, and can range from an interest in spinning objects to a fascination with drawing maps or organising objects. Research explored ways of identifying and nurturing these special interests, looking at how they might be turned into opportunities for social, emotional, educational and vocational growth within the garden.
Variety of Methods
The researchers used a variety of methods to understand the needs of residents and support staff. These included examining the existing timetable of activities at two Kingwood homes, spending time with autistic adults to identify their special interests using interactive profiling tools developed as part of the research, putting research 'probes' in the environment to uncover interests, and following these up with home visits.
The study also conducted co-design workshops with family members and support staff, shadowed a horticulturist working with adults with autism, visited best practice schemes, interviewed experts on sensory gardens, and conducted a staff development workshop entitled Ready Steady Make to enable staff to create stimulating garden activities and props.
The research has been compiled into a new publication, the third in the Kingwood design series, entitled Green Spaces: Outdoor Environments for Adults with Autism. This documents the process, methods and findings. The book relates guidance on garden design to three areas of activity for autistic adults – leisure, occupation and exercise. Differently designed spaces allow a range of activities from the social to the private to take place.
To make outdoor environments more comfortable and secure, the ideas build order and structure into the space, showing how to manage predictable elements, such as pathways and planting, alongside changeable conditions, such as weather patterns or seasons.
Design ideas have also been realised in the garden of the new Kingwood College, due to open later this year, demonstrating best practice and acting as a showcase for the research.