Design with a Difference

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Creating sensory-friendly spaces for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

As an interior designer, Lucinda Bosch has always been drawn to the idea of creating spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also functional and supportive. When it was time for her third-year final submission at Inscape Education Group in 2020, she knew she wanted to tackle a project that would make a real difference in the lives of those who use it. That’s why she decided to design a sensory-friendly centre for autistic children in South Africa.

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, behavior, and social interaction. Children with ASD often experience sensory sensitivities, which means that their sensory perceptions can be heightened or distorted. This can lead to sensory overload or discomfort in environments that are too bright, too loud, or too overwhelming in terms of sensory stimuli. Sensory-friendly educational and rehabilitative spaces are designed to address these sensitivities. However, for the most part, autism-friendly designs also make spaces more enjoyable for individuals and parents who do not experience ASD. In other words, autism-friendly design is just good architecture! The project also carries personal significance for Lucinda. Her mother is a teacher, and has often shared stories with her of children in her class who struggle with over-stimulation and sensory sensitivities. Hearing about those challenges first-hand inspired her to explore how design could address these issues and create a more supportive environment for children with ASD. She seeks to create a space that would not only meet the functional needs of children with ASD, but would also provide an environment that is welcoming, calming, and supportive. By incorporating sensory-friendly elements such as subdued lighting, muted colours, and specialised materials and equipment, her design aims to create an environment that would reduce sensory overload.

The chosen site is situated on a small holding in Vierlanden, Durbanville. The building currently functions as a family home and the site boasts spectacular views of the surrounding farmland. The suburban setting is ideal for creating a familiar, inviting, and sensory-friendly learning centre as it is located in a residential area which will make the children feel safe and directly connected to nature. Research shows that the sound of running water, wildflower meadows, and the life of the entire neighbourhood have great effects on the social and psychological behaviours of autistic children.

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“Overall, my project was a reflection of my passion for design that makes a difference and my desire to create supportive environments that help those who use them reach their full potential.”

The design heavily emphasises sensory elements, such as textures, colours, patterns, acoustics, and lighting. The concept was to design the learning environment as to be as natural as possible using a combination of the four essential elements of nature: earth, air, fire, and water. For example, the circulation and fluidity of water, the lightness of air, the fresh and earthy colour scheme of earth, and the passion and warmth of fire.

The facility needs to be functional, educational, and therapeutic, with a multitude of programmes for music, art, therapy, play, and exercise. A one-way circulation scheme that builds on the special needs users’ affinity for routine is employed throughout the building. The circulation corresponds to the general daily schedule of the students’ activity as they move through the school. Outside pods have been designed on the premise that learning and creativity are processes involving the body. The secluded pods are important features as they provide relief for the autistic user in case of over-stimulation. The students can use this as a pause zone or to sit and do their homework outside. The shell is constructed out of treated pine.

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The custom-designed round, bracketless shelves are meant to cover all sharp corners for safety. The luxury vinyl and cork flooring provide a soft, durable, and noise-reducing surface for the children, while the epoxy resin adds a smooth, textured finish.

Neutral and calming colours and the use of natural materials are best-suited for autism-friendly learning environments. Overly stimulating colours should be avoided. In this design, Dulux’s Mineral Mist and Tuscan Glade paint, as well as Hertex’s oxidised metal wallpaper, create a soothing atmosphere. Natural lighting is introduced with non-glare, anti-reflective glass to allow indirect sunlight without visual distractions. The benefits of sensory-friendly educational and rehabilitative spaces for children with ASD are significant. These spaces provide a supportive environment that can help children with ASD feel more comfortable, calm, and engaged in their learning and therapy activities. By reducing sensory overload and providing a structured and predictable environment, sensory-friendly spaces can help children with ASD better understand and navigate their surroundings, which can promote independence, self-regulation, and social skills development. The specialised materials and resources in these spaces can also support the educational and rehabilitative goals of children with ASD, helping them achieve their developmental milestones.

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