How a holistic approach to ASD & neuropsychology could contribute to design for autism more effectively



The landscape of design is constantly evolving, aiming to create spaces and tools that cater to the diverse needs of users. However, when it comes to designing for neurodivergent individuals, particularly those on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) spectrum, there’s often a gap between good intentions and impactful solutions. A recent study published in March 2024, titled “How a holistic approach to ASD & neuropsychology could contribute to design for autism more effectively,” by Amalia SF Megremi, John Darzentas, and Jenny Darzentas, proposes a groundbreaking solution: a holistic design approach informed by neuropsychology.


The Limitations of Traditional Design for Autism


Traditionally, design for autism has focused on addressing specific challenges, such as sensory overload or social interaction difficulties. While these are crucial aspects of the autistic experience, a piecemeal approach fails to capture the complete picture. Sensory issues, for instance, can be intertwined with information processing differences and executive function challenges. Addressing only one element might leave the overall experience disjointed and ineffective.


The Power of a Holistic Approach


The researchers propose a shift towards a more holistic approach that takes into account the full spectrum of autistic experiences. This includes not just behavioral observations but also the underlying neuropsychological factors that contribute to those behaviors. These factors can encompass:

  • Attention: Autistic individuals may exhibit difficulties with sustained attention, selective attention, or divided attention.
  • Processing Speed: Information processing speed can vary significantly among autistic individuals, impacting their ability to respond to stimuli in real-time environments.
  • Executive Function: Challenges with planning, organization, and self-regulation are common in autism.
  • Social Cognition: Understanding social cues and navigating social interactions can be a significant hurdle for some autistic individuals.


Understanding Neuropsychology for Effective Design


By incorporating an understanding of these neuropsychological aspects into design, we can create environments and tools that are truly supportive. Here are some examples:

  • Educational Spaces: Imagine classrooms with designated quiet areas, noise-canceling materials, and visual schedules that provide clear structure to support attention and focus.
  • Public Spaces: Airports with well-organized signage, predictable routines for security checks and boarding, and designated waiting areas with calming lighting, can significantly reduce anxiety for autistic travelers.
  • Workplaces: Cubicles with adjustable lighting to manage sensory input, privacy partitions to minimize distractions, and assistive technologies for organization and communication can empower autistic employees to thrive.


Beyond Specific Examples: The Ripple Effect of Holistic Design


The benefits of a holistic design approach extend far beyond specific applications. By creating more inclusive spaces that cater to the diverse needs of autistic individuals, we pave the way for a more equitable and supportive world for everyone. Here’s how:

  • Increased Independence and Autonomy: Environments designed with neuropsychology in mind can empower autistic individuals to navigate their surroundings with greater ease, fostering independence and a sense of control.
  • Improved Communication and Social Interaction: Predictable environments and clear communication strategies can reduce anxiety and create a foundation for more positive social interactions.
  • Reduced Anxiety and Stress: Sensory overload and unpredictable environments are major sources of stress for autistic individuals. Design that addresses these issues can significantly improve overall well-being.
  • Enhanced Learning and Cognitive Development: Supportive environments can foster a sense of calm and focus, allowing autistic individuals to fully engage in learning and development.


A Call for Collaboration and Innovation


The research by Megremi, Darzentas, and Darzentas is a clarion call for collaboration. Designers, educators, architects, and healthcare professionals must work together to integrate neuropsychological knowledge into the design process. This collaboration can lead to innovative solutions that not only address the challenges faced by autistic individuals but also create a more inclusive world for everyone.


This blog post serves as a springboard for further discussion and exploration. By embracing a holistic design approach informed by neuropsychology, we can unlock a world of possibilities where design becomes a powerful tool for empowerment and inclusion.



Is this approach relevant only for diagnosed individuals?


The principles of holistic design informed by neuropsychology can benefit a wider range of people than just those diagnosed with ASD. Many individuals experience neurodiversity that manifests in similar challenges, such as sensory sensitivities or attention difficulties. This design approach can create more universally supportive environments that benefit everyone.


Isn’t considering neuropsychology in design too complicated?


While a deep understanding of neuropsychology is valuable, the core principles of holistic design are achievable. Focusing on clear communication, predictable routines, and offering options for managing sensory input are practical steps that can be implemented without extensive expertise.


What are some existing examples of holistic design in action?


Look beyond spaces specifically designed for autism. Universal Design principles, which aim to create usable environments for everyone, often align with holistic design concepts. Curb cuts on sidewalks, for instance, were originally designed for wheelchair users but benefit everyone.

How can technology play a role in holistic design for autism?


Technology can be a powerful tool when used thoughtfully. Assistive technologies can support areas like communication, organization, and social interaction. However, it’s crucial to ensure technology complements the holistic design approach and doesn’t become a source of further overwhelm.


What are some potential challenges in implementing holistic design?


One challenge might be resistance to change from those accustomed to traditional design methods. Another hurdle could be the initial cost associated with implementing new design features. However, the long-term benefits in terms of user experience and potential cost savings due to reduced support needs can outweigh these initial challenges.


What are some ethical considerations when designing for autism?


It’s important to avoid creating overly restrictive or segregated spaces. The goal is to create inclusive environments that cater to the needs of all users. Additionally, it’s crucial to involve autistic individuals in the design process whenever possible to ensure the solutions implemented are truly beneficial.


How can holistic design address the challenges of social interaction for autistic individuals?


Design can play a role in facilitating social interaction by providing clear communication strategies and predictable routines. For instance, incorporating designated social areas with clear boundaries can offer a safe space for interaction. Additionally, visual supports like social scripts can help autistic individuals navigate social situations more confidently.


How does holistic design impact the emotional well-being of autistic individuals?


By reducing anxiety and stress through predictable environments and manageable sensory input, holistic design can significantly improve emotional well-being. Feeling empowered to navigate their surroundings and having access to calming spaces can contribute to a greater sense of control and overall emotional stability.


How does holistic design impact the development of motor skills in autistic individuals?


Some autistic individuals may experience challenges with motor skills or apraxia. Holistic design can incorporate elements that support motor development. For example, providing spaces with varied textures and opportunities for climbing or movement can encourage exploration and physical activity. Additionally, occupational therapists can collaborate with designers to integrate elements that address specific motor skill needs.



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