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Designing floors for children on the spectrum

The increasing number of children on the spectrum in mainstream education is inspiring innovation in the flooring industry, says Cath Helliker.

ARCHITECTURE and interior design aren’t just about what looks good, it’s about how an interior space makes someone feel, which is why autism design principles are so important.

According to the National Autistic Society, there are about 700,000 people on the autistic spectrum in the UK, that’s more than 1 in 100, which means greater consideration should be given to the impact of a building and its interior design on the occupants, especially those that facilitate children and adults with additional needs.

People who are on the autistic spectrum have difficulty processing sensory information from their environment, which means their living or working environments can have a profound effect on how they feel and respond to others.

Autism is an extremely complex condition and there’s a well-known saying: If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met only one child with autism.

A person with autism may have senses which are under or overactive, or both, at different times. Such sensory differences can affect their behaviour and have a profound effect on their personal lives and how they react to their surroundings and other people.

Therefore, the key to successful design for those living with autism seems to revolve around the idea of the sensory environment and its relationship with autistic behaviour. However, as autism is a spectrum disorder, autism-friendly design requires a conceptual framework rather than a list of hard and fast rules.

Sensitivities arise when someone struggles to deal with everyday sensory information. Too much stimuli, or too little for some, can cause stress, anxiety and even the feeling of physical pain, which can result in challenging behaviour and withdrawal.

A conceptual framework
Architect Chris Beaver states that ‘to know how a building is going to perform requires a profound knowledge of who will use it and how it will be used’. This can be a changing dynamic; those with and without autism may be using the space and occupants with very different needs and ways of responding to their environment may change over time.

This is where the conceptual framework comes into play and forms the basis of Dr Magda Mostafa’s Autism ASPECTSS Design Index which explains the importance of acoustics, spatial sequencing, escape, compartmentalisation, transition spaces, sensory zoning and safety, as a design development tool.

Design elements
Many elements of design need to be taken into consideration, but the following points will look specifically at how flooring can positively impact an environment for those on the spectrum.

Taking several elements from Dr Mostafa’s Autism ASPECTSS Design Index and her sensory design theory into consideration we will explain how carpet could assist with creating an environment which is sympathetic to someone on the spectrum.

Acoustics has been acknowledged as one of the most influential features of the sensory environment upon autistic behaviour. Some research suggests that by reducing noise levels and echoes in educational settings for children with autism, attention spans, response times and behavioural temperament can be improved.

Mostafa found an individual’s attention span could be tripled and a decrease of 60% in response time and self-stimulatory behaviour in an acoustically sound environment.
Mostafa states that the acoustical environments, for those on the spectrum, should be controlled to minimise background noise, echoes and sound reverberation.

Having said that, the level of acoustical control should be determined by the function of the space. Activities requiring a high level of focus, which are likely to be taking place in a ‘low stimulus zone,’ should have a higher level of acoustical control with the likes of noise, echo and sound reverberation being minimised, than those areas of a high stimulus.

The use of sound and the acoustical environment can help transition an individual from one area to another and from one activity to the next. The need to control acoustics is down to the space and choice of materials. A carpet is an ideal solution when it comes to the floor as it reduces the noise impact of foot traffic and will absorb a substantial amount of sound.

Heating in facilities caring for those with autism has previously been a challenge. Traditional radiators were replaced with low surface temperature radiators with the arrival of stricter health and safety guidelines. Both means of heating have inviting gaps and the low surface heaters offering an ideal platform for jumping.

As a result, underfloor heating has become an ideal solution, offering an invisible heating system without any sharp edges. Therefore, flooring solutions that are used within buildings with underfloor heating, have to be compatible with such heating systems.

Colour is a very personal choice and different colours ignite different emotions and feelings in every single one of us. However, it’s widely noted, when designing inclusive interiors there are certain colours which can be considered neutral, calming, disturbing, and stimulating.

Anything which is too patterned, contains stripes or geometric shapes, or is highly contrasting; like the use of black and white blocks of colour, can be extremely distracting to someone with autism and can lower attention span, increase response times or even cause stress, anxiety and pain. So, the use of more neutral and calming colours, within finishing products like carpets, paints, and textiles, is often a safer option.

The senses
Interior design needs to address all the senses on an equal basis. Consideration should be given to smell, touch, taste, and sound in addition to the traditional dominant sense of sight. In people living with autism, sight may not be the most dominant sense, which is why the other senses must be considered on an equal basis.

Carpets generally contain no pentachlorophenol or formaldehyde which are two common volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, which omit a noticeable smell. Any smell associated with carpets is usually down to the adhesive used to fix it to the floor, which usually dissipates in a few days. Any material which gives off a strong or persistent smell, for example, leather, should be avoided.

The benefits of autism design
Buildings where children, or adults with autism, live and learn must be warm, friendly, and welcoming environments.

A learning environment that is sympathetic to those with autism will boost the development of those on the spectrum and may have a positive impact on all children, especially those with ADHD, Dyslexia.

Over the years there has been an increase in the number of children on the spectrum in mainstream education. This can bring with it many challenges in terms of their ability to function and communicate in an environment that isn’t suited to their needs.

With a greater understanding of specialist design principles and the benefits they can bring, such principles can be applied not just to specialist schools and care environments but to mainstream education, homes and workplaces.
Cath Helliker is marketing manager at Danfloor UK

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