Reshaping Universities' Infrastructure to Facilitate Education for Autistic Students
October 27, 2020 By Reem Abouemera
Dublin City University (DCU) was declared the world's first autism-friendly university by AsIAm, Ireland's National Autism Charity, through its educational and social support for students and staff on the autism spectrum, and is now working to expand its physical infrastructure and architecture to incorporate autistic needs. On that account, they approached Magda Mostafa, associate professor at AUC’s Department of Architecture and international autism design expert. Mostafa is working to deliver a DCU Autism-Friendly University Design Guide, in light of her expertise and development of the Autism ASPECTSS Design Index — the world's first set of evidence-based design guidelines to address built environments for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Currently, an autism-friendly design guide for university campuses is in the works. While the design being developed is specific to DCU, Mostafa — who is now alead consultant on the project— aims for it to be scalable and replicable across Dublin at large as well as different nations and states. “I want this to be a lifelong document not just for DCU but also other campuses,” said Mostafa. “I want all institutions to continue to follow and implement the procedures in different ways. The hope is that this will be a living project, not a ‘one of’ and continue to expand.” Mostafa aspires for DCU's project to be a campus guidelines pilot for every higher education institution, ultimately establishing a systemized way of constructing an autism-friendly campus including residences, buildings, classrooms, libraries, offices, food spaces and more. "Typically, policymakers, facilitators and researchers make priorities for this community without consulting them. In this case, the autism community itself guides this initiative. I care about this in all my autism work," asserted Mostafa. The Need The project started as an idea from AsIAm, which together with DCU, researched and sensory-audited the campuses for 18 months to identify how it could become more autism-friendly. The feedback highlighted barriers the autistic community faced on the campuses, with the environment identified as a crucial factor to aid positive learning and well-being. "Autistic students in university are often expected to live in student accommodation, which is crowded, unstructured and noisy,” said Adam Harris, founder and CEO of AsIAm. Physical environments can pose other difficulties for autistic students, especially those with heightened sensory awareness to smells, such as cooking smells and cigarette smoke, bright colors, fluorescent lighting and noise, such as a bustling noisy space at peak times. Such factors lead to a "sensory overload," which can be uncomfortable, painful and distressing. The project also entails identifying smart solutions and integrating technology in the campus design by adopting the Internet of Things (IoT) and other communication technology strategies to assist autistic members with navigation, working closely with the Smart DCU initiative. “Too often, designed buildings do not take account of autism accessibility requirements and services do not prioritize the very real barriers autistic people face in managing the environment," added Harris. Autistic individuals, Mostafa explained, need access to space throughout the day to resort to when they're overwhelmed and need to take a break, and transportation is a "big stress point" for them. Accordingly, Mostafa is working with DCU to build more inclusive on-campus student residences, taking factors such as material selection, color, lighting and interior design into account. “It is with great enthusiasm that we embark on this piece of work with Magda Mostafa,” said Fiona Earley, autism-friendly university coordinator at DCU. “We feel very privileged to be working with someone who is so aligned with [our] values of inclusion and diversity.” Hassell Studio, an international design consultancy, has been invited by Mostafa as a UK-based sub-consultant to help support the project under her direction.” These design guidelines will, we hope, be an important step for helping greater influence for other typologies and scales too, such as the workplace, transport, cities and residential sectors,” said Julian Gitsham, principal and practice architecture leader at Hassell Studio. The Roots Mostafa started working on autism in 2002, which was the year that autism peaked and was even called the "autism epidemic" at the time. That was when diagnostic tools became more widely available. The group of young children diagnosed around that year is considered to be what Mostafa has coined the "peak cohort," and she has been witnessing their "ballooning" ever since. She worked with this cohort and in this field when they were young and in need of early intervention, and now that they’re leaving their school systems and moving into higher education, she's not surprised that there's a need for higher education institutional design – she expected it. Already, there’s growing interest for autism-friendly workplaces, for example, as witnessed by the development of initiatives such as SAP’s Autism at Work, with whom Mostafa has collaborated, and international office design industrial leaders such as SteelCase, who have referenced Mostafa’s ASPECTSS in their recent publication “Going Beyond Average with Inclusive Design”. In the near future, Mostafa expects an increasing demand for infrastructure guidelines for other lifespan supports of typologies, such as autism-friendly independent housing and residential support. Precisely, she expects this as soon as the “peak cohort” graduates and transitions to the workplace, where they will need to either move independently or into a supported form of living. "It's interesting that guidelines are growing up with this cohort, and it's about time,” reflected Mostafa. “It's very limiting that so much support and funding historically went toward curing autism, and people didn’t fully recognize that it's lifelong, much like other disabilities. It's not necessarily a disability; often it’s the environment that is disabling. It's a different perspective of the world, a different brain architecture." Mostafa recalled a heartbreaking conversation with a parent of an autistic child, summing up most autistic parents' feelings: "I remember a mother telling me about her son who was about to graduate from high school. She told me that people were acting like he's going to evaporate when he turns 18. There were no plans, support systems, nothing. She was almost hoping he fails because they have no idea where they’re going – no vocational systems, nothing." Today, Mostafa is thrilled that higher education institutions are now factoring in support for individuals with disabilities and even prouder that disability services have expanded to include autism. As a result of COVID-19's physical campus access restrictions, there are some timeline changes to the project's completion, but the project is moving ahead and expected to come to light in early 2021. Other universities have also committed to join the Autism Friendly University initiative and will hopefully adopt the guide for reference in the future.