Architect Creates Autism-Friendly Guidelines for Builders

Dr. Magda Mostafa is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Architectural Engineering at the American University in Cairo who also serves as Deputy Vice-President for Africa in the UNESCO-International Union of Architects’ Education Commission and Validation Council. In 2002, while she was studying for her PhD at the University of Cairo, she was asked to design Egypt’s first educational facility for autism. She was shocked to find that no guidelines existed to help architects design buildings with the sensory and social needs of people with autism in mind, so she decided to do some research and create them herself.

Her study, completed in 2008, was “among the first autism design studies to be prospective not retrospective, have a control group, and measure quantifiable factors in a systematic way.” The results of her research led to the development of the Autism ASPECTSS™ Design Index, a matrix to help guide design, as well as to assess the appropriateness of a standing building for individuals with autism. The Index presents seven design/criteria issues that have been shown to foster positive behavior and skill development in people with autism. They are Acoustics, Spatial sequencing, Escape spaces, Compartmentalization, Transition spaces, Sensory zoning, and Safety.

Mostafa explains

“If you think of the primary problem of autism being understanding, coping with and responding to the sensory environment, you can grasp the power of architecture in their everyday lives.

“The built environment provides the large majority of sensory input – light, acoustics, textures, colors, spatial configurations, ventilation, etc. By manipulating the design of the environment we can manipulate that all-so-important sensory input.”

In her research, she found the number one request from parents of children with autism was to find a way “to take those fleeting moments of calm and connection with our children and make them last longer.”

Mostafa’s research has implications for many facilities around the world, from schools to residential facilities, and even private homes. If the sensory environment can be geared specifically towards individuals with autism, they will be more available for learning and interacting with others, and will be able to live fuller, more independent lives. Even facilities that are already standing can use her Index to assess the appropriateness of their building, and to make changes that will help their students or residents.

Mostafa also recommends gradually exposing individuals with autism to outside environments that are not as controlled for their sensory needs. This is to avoid what she calls a “greenhouse effect,” where the individual thrives in one environment, only to fall apart when exposed to the outside world.

Her biggest obstacle has been securing funding for her research. Most of the funding for autism interventions tends to focus on curriculum development and therapy interventions. The importance of the physical environment is often overlooked.

Even so, Mostafa’s work is being used worldwide. She is currently involved in two projects, one in Canada and another in India, to develop design strategies for schools with autism.