Sensory map of Philadelphia 10th Street from Spring Garden to Race, 2018.

Sensory map of Philadelphia 10th Street from Spring Garden to Race, 2018.

Design for Autism / Hidden Geographies: Designing for Autistic and Neurodivergent Ways of Sensing, Perceiving, and Embodying the City

The following abstract and research proposal has been submitted to the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership.


Autistic people are often hyperaware of sensory constructions of space. When confronted with unexpected or new information this hyperawareness often results in anxiety and extreme distress which is understood as sensory processing dysfunction. Public space, particularly urban environments, generate endless, novel, and unanticipated sensorial information which may create inaccessible environments for Autistic people. Designers have started to investigate how to design private space for Autistic people, but accommodating the needs of Autistic people in the public realm has not been given the meaningful attention it requires.

This community-based participatory research project comprises a sensorial ethnography of Autistic people in the city, Hidden Geographies, and the development of a toolkit for designers, Design for Autism. In Hidden Geographies, Autistic people will explore the visual, spatial, and sonic qualities of public space. This ethnography will lead to the development of Design for Autism, an evidence-based toolkit of recommendations on how to design public space to accommodate the needs of Autistic people.

By explicitly designing for Autism in public space, we invite Autistic people to engage more fully in our community and lessen the social oppression facing Autistic people. Working to remove barriers to public space, and designing for all experiences - landscape architects advocate for the recognition of humanity and equality in all of our community members.


Landscape architects are tasked with the critical responsibility to design inclusive and accessible environments for all users - those with physical, sensorial, or cognitive limitations. While landscape architects are committed to physical accessibility and accommodation there remains an invisible disabled population who experience a hidden landscape - the Neurodivergent. The built environment is sensed, perceived, and embodied through all of us, but rendered near-impossible to manage for the Neurodivergent - particularly Autistic people. Landscape architecture has not yet meaningfully explored what it means to design for Autism. The current state of research is focused on Autistic children’s healthcare, educational, and residential design. Places for children - in educational setting or treatment facilities have been prioritized, and rightly so - Autistic children need additional support in transitioning into the Neurotypical world. But, Autistic children become Autistic adults and there is a very clear lack of research conducted which focuses on the experience of Autistic adults. Private spaces are important for Autistic people’s development and enjoyment, but by focusing on the design of private space designers unintentionally tell Autistic people that these are the only places where they belong - and that they do not belong in public. While it is critically important to serve Autistic populations in a private setting, the public realm has not been given the meaningful attention it requires in terms of design, research, or planning for Neurodivergent and Autistic people.

The American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA) provides resources for the Mental Health Benefits of Nature within the Healthcare and Therapeutic Design Professional Practice Network on their website. These resource pages provide information related to designing for Autistic children in limited contexts. The resources list is brief, and limited to case studies and thesis projects which focus on small-scale horticulture therapy applications in private healthcare settings, niche residential design, and private educational play spaces. These preliminary inquiries and studies are an important place for landscape architects to start to explore and engage with the Autistic community. They serve as a foundation for understanding how we can better accommodate Autistic people’s needs in all contexts, and where we can move beyond the bounds of private space into the public realm.

Autism research in related design professions is limited, too. There is little consistency in purpose, understanding, inclusion, or approach. The existing body of research is focused within architecture, and similar to landscape architecture, is focused on healthcare and education settings. In 2015 Magda Mostafa published “Architecture for autism: Built environment performance in accordance to the autism ASPECTSS™ design index” which establishes a design framework for architects that seeks to create a standardized treatment of interior space. While the ASPECTSS design index organizes a thoughtful and evidence-based framework for interior spaces, these practices have not been applied in the landscape. By working to design for Autism, landscape architects challenge the prevailing social norms surrounding disability by removing social and physical barriers to full social inclusion.


This research project provides a critical opportunity for landscape architects work with, learn from, and design for Autistic people. There is a significant lack of design research and design attention paid to the needs of Autistic people. The limited research that has been conducted has been in architecture and interior space, focused on Autistic children’s learning environments, and has not been applied to the landscape. Public space, and particularly urban space provides an opportunity for providing the biggest impact on Autistic people’s lives and experiences. While some research projects have been conducted, very few studies have directly interfaced with Autistic people, instead they have focused on the perspectives and feedback from their caretakers, teachers, or clinicians. By working directly with Autistic people landscape architects are positioned to engage most authentically and ethically with them and for them.

As both a designer and an Autistic person I play an important role to facilitate communication and engagement between the designers and Autistic people. As a translator between these two worlds I will give voice to those who may be unable to be heard or ignored due to their own forms of communication. I am uniquely suited to recognize and eliminate barriers to access. By following the lead of of scholars who reconceptualize disability in the social model as opposed to the medical model (Freund 2001; Imrie and Edwards 2007), designers can shift the disability discourse while designing for the neurodivergent and bring about more accommodation and acceptance of neurological diversity in our society. Self-advocacy is essential to change public perceptions of autism and to dispel old myths and stereotypes that have led to discrimination and abuse. Working alongside and creating space for meaningful involvement of Autistic individuals will facilitate change in the public perceptions of Autism which have been shaped by misinformation, fear, and lack of personal experience and relationships with Autistic people.

This project gives voice to those who’s communication styles are questioned by the Neurotypical world, and can help to bring to life the acceptance and accommodation of those of us who’s neurotypes are often feared, discriminated, and abused due to misinformation as well as stereotypical and harmful media representation.


A multimodal approach to experience and documentation, this project is informed by Lawrence and Anna Halprin’s RSVP Cycles and Taking Part community process, Deep Listening practices developed by Pauline Oliveros, and is shaped by Catherine Grout’s and Alexander An’s work in landscape architecture education. The resultant ethnographic materials constitute a new inventory of the city - representing Autistic and Neurodivergent ways of knowing and being in the urban environment. “[t]o walk through a place is to become involved in that place with sight, hearing, touch, smell … proprioception, and even taste’ (Adams, 2001). Designing this ethnographic study to include the body of the researcher and of the researched as part of the process of inquiry and data collection affords a ‘greater phenomenological sensibility to ethnography’ (Kusenbach, 2003).

This project ask participants and the audience to enter into new ways of knowing, documenting, conceptualizing the city through a community-based participatory research process. The term ‘participatory research’ refers to research in which members of a community work with researchers to achieve shared goals. These methods are thought to produce information that is relevant to people’s lives and thus may be particularly likely to have a positive impact on communities. This community-based process may be informed by the Participatory Autism Research Starter Pack, which was inspired by discussions and debates held in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cardiff and London as part of the ESRC-funded Shaping Autism Research seminar series.

The first part of this research project, Hidden Geographies, comprises 1) sensory mapping, 2) visual and sonic field recordings, and 3) go-along walking interviews. This ethnographic study prioritizes visual and sonic practices and purposefully is not primarily language-based as to reflect the communication styles of the research population. Through sensory mapping processes researchers and participants will catalog, analyze, and reveal how spatial organization and senses of space impact Autistic people’s health and lived experience. Grounded in public health and inspired by geographic research field that uses the body as a research tool, in order to more deeply know and engage with place, this practice is additionally informed by Catherine Grout’s and Alexander An’s work in landscape architecture education (An, 2018.) who utilize body perception as an important component of site analysis for landscape architecture students. Visual and sonic field recordings allow us to capture sensorial information that defines the city which is simultaneously pervasive and fleeting.

The second part of this research project, Design for Autism, makes use of the findings and analysis from Hidden Geographies. In order to more actively and authentically serve the needs of Autistic people, there needs to be a resource that is easy to access and understand - a resource that is a translation of the Autistic experience into design language. Design for Autism will provide a rigorously researched toolkit for landscape architects and urban designers, and will be reviewed for approval by leading Autism organizations such as Autism Self-Advocacy Network. By learning from research and advocacy work through the Autism community, such as the Participatory Autism Research Starter Pack, Design for Autism will spread current and accurate information about Autism to the design community, while also providing a robust toolkit and guidebook for how to design to accommodate the needs of Autistic people, in private settings like education and healthcare, but more importantly in the public realm and the urban environment. By directly serving Autistic people we more meaningfully invite them into the public commons, treat them with dignity, and see them as valued community members.


While the primary goal of this research project is to recognize and improve the lived experience and clinical outcomes of Autistic people, this project provides additional outcomes that warrant mention. As an ethnographic study of Autistic people’s experience in the city - the project provides a significant opportunity to share Autistic stories and experience across a broad field of scholarship. By generating a design toolkit, not only will we serve the physical, sensorial, and cognitive needs of Autistic people but we will also garner the acceptance, accommodation, and advocacy for Autistic people in the built environment. This project also has the potential to shift disability discourse within the design professions from medical model to social model.


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