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What Would a City Designed for People with Autism Look Like?

In the post below, Elizabeth Florence Decker, MLA, a Master's of Landscape Architecture student at Kansas State University, explains her Master's report: A City for Marc: An Inclusive Urban Design Approach to Planning for Adults with Autism. Elizabeth created a toolkit to help make cities inclusive of adults with autism.

The first generation of diagnosed autistic children is aging, calling on needed research to improve the lives of autistic adults. Cities are typically designed for people without disability or limitation. Urban environments add to sensory overload, have limited mass transit accessible to those with neurological disabilities, provide few affordable housing units, offer very little employment opportunity, and typically have few green spaces. According to James J. Gibson, an “affordance” is how different characteristics of an individual, such as social needs, intentions, and physical abilities correspond with his or her environment. Typical urban design does not take into account the affordances needed by adults with autism.

Before I discuss my research, let me explain where I come from. Most of my life has been spent in Leavenworth and Lansing, Kansas living as an Army brat. My father retired at Fort Leavenworth as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the year 2000. I am the third child out of four in my family; two older sisters (eight and twelve years older) and a little brother (four years younger). Marc, my little brother, can be described in scientific terms as: an individual who displays social communication deficits and repetitive behavior that affect his everyday life (Autism Speaks 2013). In my family's terms, he is a handful. In my terms, he is my little brother.

There have been instances over the years where friends, extended family members, and strangers have asked me what it is like growing up with a sibling with autism. I simply reply, "He's always been there — no different than any other sibling.” Then a follow up question would be, “Would your family be better off if he was not in the family?" 

"God put him in our family to appreciate a different view of life," I would respond. "He's better behaved and smarter than the majority of children today."

I completed this project with my little brother in mind, because he will soon be ineligible to receive school services and will begin his life of semi-independence. Through this project, I really wanted to understand my brother and to see him go out in the real world and be successful. My project helped me figure out how those within my discipline can design for a group of adults that is getting bigger, as well as other similar individuals.

Based on the needs of adults with autism, defined by the National Institute of Health, information from further literature review, and interviews with adults living with disabilities, I developed an initial urban design toolkit. This toolkit was then applied to Nashville, Tennessee, evaluating what services exist or do not exist within the downtown. From the audit of the downtown, I conducted a theoretical and diagrammatic proposal for Nashville. Reflections upon the final proposal are synthesized into a revised toolkit, containing additional components that were not indicated within the literature review.

There are six needs for adults with autism that the toolkit addresses: vocational training, employment, life skills training, health support, public transportation, and affordable housing.  Each proposed element within the toolkit  was carefully planned to: be accessible to adults with autism, provide autism-related services, and thread into the existing neighborhood characteristics to allow the design to serve the community in its entirety. The overall proposal provides opportunity for adults with autism to be included in their broader community.

Of course, it is unrealistic to develop a city master plan that revolves around adults with autism – that is not the goal of my research! Cities are meant to be diverse and are developed through many individual efforts from entrepreneurs, communities, and businesses. By identifying underutilized land, such as excess parking lots, cities can begin to piece together services and needs of neighorhoods and begin to develop connections of services that may apply to adults with autism, or even other disabilities or limitations. The key to developing healthy cities is to understand who the users are and their unique characteristics that may influence innovative design solutions.

The final urban systems toolkit and diagrammatic proposal provide exploratory research for city planners, architects, and landscape architects to design for cities inclusive of adults with autism. This additional layer of design not only contributes to the social and environmental well-being of individuals with autism, but also contributes to the entire urban community. Urban design as an approach to planning for adults with autism contributes a new disciplinary perspective to the discourse on planning for a maturing autistic population.

My toolkit and research can be accessed here!

My master's report committee includes Katie Kingery-Page, assistant professor of landscape architecture/regional & community planning; Marilyn Kaff, associate professor of special education, counseling and student affairs; and Jason Brody, assistant professor of landscape architecture/regional & community planning. 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.