Inclusive Urban Design Considerations for people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Photograph captured by a student participant (pas part of the data collection

Photograph captured by a student participant (pas part of the data collection

Despite the (increasing) prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the barriers PlwA encounter in the built environment, this consideration has been largely excluded from design guidelines globally; with much of the focus on the physical or 'visible’ impairments[1]. This absence, it seems, is due in part to the ‘invisible’ nature of ASD, as well as designers having limited knowledge of the disorder and the subsequent barriers imposed by the built environment[2].

ASD is a lifelong, complex developmental disorder[3]. In Australia, 1 in 70 people are considered on the spectrum, which equates to almost 230,000 Australians[4].  

The disorder is characterised as affecting three main areas; communication, social reciprocity and imagination[5].  This is understood to be the result of a lack of central coherence where people living with autism (PlwA) cannot assign meaning to a given stimulus due to an inability to extract information from its context[6].  Even when the information is taken from past experiences many cannot apprehend the meaning, or if they do, the meaning cannot be readapted to new contexts[7].

Physical contact is another social interaction which many are resistant to and as a result require more personal space than non-disabled people[8].  

The degree to which these characteristics are experienced varies between people, hence why the disorder is known as a spectrum[9].

Depending on an individual’s condition, some may require lifelong continuous support, while others are able to adapt and live independently[10]. Researchers agree that this distinction is not only influenced by the condition itself, but also by the built environment, with barriers manifesting through “colours, textures, patterns, lights, shapes and spatial qualities”[11].

Photograph captured by a student participant (P2) as part of the data collection

Photograph captured by a student participant (P2) as part of the data collection

The few empirical studies that have considered PlwA and the built environment concern internal environments of educational and residential facilities, particularly for children with Special Education Needs[12].  There is very little empirical evidence or guidance that considers PlwA and the design of the external built environment, particularly streets.  Several specialists have expressed concern with establishing and applying prescriptive design guidelines due to the belief that they neglect to consider the spectrum among PlwA[13].

The study that this article is based on sought to identify what barriers young adults (years 18-25) with ASD face when wayfinding in streets. Through direct consultation with young adults (years 18-25), using methods which included cognitive mapping, walking interviews and a photography task, as well as interviews with teachers, caregivers and parents, a set of design considerations were proposed for use by professionals. These design considerations are provided below. Note that the definition of wayfinding that this study followed was: “movement from an origin to a specific distant destination that cannot be directly perceived by the traveller”, involving the “interaction between the wayfinder and the environment”[14].

For PlwA, “streets are very distractive. There’s a lot going on in the street,… and some find it quite difficult to focus”[15].  The barriers restricting independent access to streets for young PlwA are:

1.   Public awareness

Photograph captured by a student participant (P10) as part of the data collection

Photograph captured by a student participant (P10) as part of the data collection

2.   Personal space

3.   Legibility

4.   Crossings

5.   Noise

6.   Clutter

7.   Lighting

8.   Public facilities

Additionally, nature was identified not as a barrier, but as a feature favoured by PlwA.

To mitigate against these barriers and incorporate favoured features the following design considerations should be tailored to the context of the environment through direct consultation with its users.  Such consultation should be undertaken in the initial stages of the design process.

This article was based on research undertaken by Emily Sproule and supervised by Professor David Uzzell.  The research was submitted in 2016 to the University of Surrey (UK) in partial fulfilment of the degree of Master of Science in Environment Psychology.  For further information on this study please contact p.ple consultants –

Inclusive Urban Design Considerations for PlwA

Inclusive Urban Design Considerations for PlwA


[1]Khare, R., & Mullick, A. (2009). Designing inclusive educational spaces with reference to autism.  In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 53, pp. 517–520). SAGE Publications.; Mostafa, M. (2008). An Architecture for Autism: Concepts of Design Intervention for the Autistic User. Archnet-IJAR, International Journal of Architectural Research, 2(1), 189–211.; Sánchez, P. A., Vázquez, F. S., & Serrano, L. A. (2011). Autism and the Built Environment. INTECH Open Access Publisher. Retrieved from

[2]Khare & Mullick, op. cit.; McAllister, K., & Maguire, B. (2012). A design model: the Autism Spectrum Disorder Classroom Design Kit. British Journal of Special Education, 39(4), 201–208.


[4]Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect). (2018). What is Autism?. Retrieved from    

[5]McAllister & Maguire, op.cit.; Sánchez et al., op.cit.; Whitehurst, T. (2006). The impact of building design on children with autistic spectrum disorders. Good Autism Practice, 7(1), 31–38.

[6]Sánchez et al., 2011, p. 367


[8]Scott, I. (2009). Designing learning spaces for children on the autism spectrum. Good Autism Practice, 10(1), 36–51.

[9]McAllister & Maguire, op. cit.


[11]Mostafa, M. (2014). ARCHITECTURE FOR AUTISM:  Autism ASPECTSSTM in School Design.

International Journal of Architectural Research: ArchNet-IJAR, 8(1), 16, p. 144.

[12]Whitehurst, op. cit.

[13]McAllister & Maguire, op. cit.; Mostafa, 2008, op. cit..

[14]Raubal, M. (2008). Wayfinding: Affordances and Agent Simulation. In Encyclopedia of GIS (pp. 1243–1246). Springer US. Retrieved from, p. 1

[15]Participant E9 from study