‘Autism-friendly:’ Adding to the Language of Design

I remember the day like it was yesterday: November 13, 2013. It was the day my life changed; not for the better, not necessarily for the worse. It just changed. On November 13, 2013, my youngest son, Micah, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Since Micah was very young, my wife, Teresa, and I noticed something different in him that we did not see in our two older boys. Teresa was the first to notice something odd. Perhaps it was his constant humming when he would focus on something or his delay in communication abilities. But it wasn’t until we received the formal diagnosis on Nov. 13, 2013, before I finally accepted the fact that my son was “different.”

From that day, my life has been different. It is filled with doctor’s appointments, meetings, and on occasion, embarrassing melt-downs in public places. To those who don’t know Micah he can seem in those instances like a spoiled 5-year-old boy who doesn’t get his way. But in reality, he’s a caring, loving and energetic boy who enjoys football and Power Rangers and is filled with compassion for others.

The autism spectrum population is growing at a steady rate. Many non-profit organizations can no longer meet the increased demand for services or have long wait lists to accommodate those with a new diagnosis. School districts are reevaluating their educational programs to meet the needs of the steadily growing population.

New schools are being constructed that are designed to handle the unique needs of these students. As a design professional, if you are involved in the planning of a school that will serve those with sensory processing disorder, I would encourage you to ask questions to ensure the design meets the needs of the population.

As a Deputy State Fire Marshal I’ve inspected school buildings designed for students with special needs. I’ve received phone calls from frustrated superintendents after staff has been sent to the hospital because they were attacked by a special needs student who became violent when he heard the fire alarm activate. I am certainly not condoning violence by those on the spectrum, but it would be remiss if we didn’t evaluate what caused the student to react the way they did and to try to prevent future occurrences.

Visual and voice fire alarm system

There are other options. Many of the special needs schools that I have been involved with as of late are installing an emergency communication and voice alarm system that use signs to replace the visual strobes of the fire alarm. A voice giving instructions to evacuate replaces the loud horns throughout the building that has caused some students to react violently towards others. Curved corridors help prevent students from getting distracted and running towards an exit door. What appear to be minor details like blocks painted on the floor can help students not interfere with other peers’ personal space.

Odds are someone you know has been affected by autism spectrum disorder. Before Nov. 13, 2013, I had no idea this disorder would have such an impact on my life. While we aren’t able to completely eliminate autism spectrum, we can work to incorporate into buildings an autism-friendly design strategies for those affected by this disorder. I would encourage you as a design professional to ask questions when working with special needs populations.

There is no “one size fit’s all approach” to this issue. As a parent of an autistic child, I can say if we can eliminate or even reduce the number and severity of the episodes experienced by those on the spectrum by including autism-friendly design features in buildings, this will benefit everyone involved.

This column by State of Minnesota Deputy Fire Marshall John Swanson first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Communicator, the official publication of the Minnesota Board of Architecture, Engineering, Land Surveying, Landscape Architecture, Geoscience, and Interior Design.  Many of the strategies referenced were included in the design of Karner Blue Education Center, a school specifically designed for students with severe autism and emotional-behavioral disorders.


Witnessing Quiet Champions of Change

They probably wouldn’t call themselves ‘Champions of Change.’ It sounds too grandiose…too self-serving. Looking back at the project, they’d more likely say they were just doing what was right for their very special kids. However, a small handful of dedicated teachers, behavioral specialists and educational administrators created transformative change in the perception, connection and teaching of young children with severe Autism and emotional-behavioral disorders, and it is change that is reverberating.

As a design team, we do projects all the time. It’s what we do and we love it. But it is a rare honor to be included as a creative partner of an emerging idea, a new concept that could only be tested through a very different process of discovery with a diverse group of passionate individuals. Even more than that, it is rare that we get to witness real leaders emerge out of the confusing noise of educational and social issues, dwindling resources, and the crushing, negative stigma of mental illness.

Seldom do we get the opportunity to learn what happened beyond the project, to study and reflect past the endless details and final design solution, to look at the other side of the project: the intertwined stories of authentic leadership, acts of personal courage, articulating a compelling vision, supportive team dynamics and the individual passions for change. It sounds like hyperbole, but, as I said, this was a very rare project, and one that we all can and should learn from.

Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 represents multiple school districts and has been providing very specialized educational services to schools for a long time. They have a high degree of expertise and a long history of success in teaching children with special needs. They’ve also developed very innovative programs and creatively adapted outdated physical spaces, but they wondered if they could do better.

Could they make their programs even more effective for the students? Could a different kind of learning environment be created to specifically address this unique population of students? They decided to explore their questions more deeply and create something very different. This is where we came in as a design team.

The 916 team knew that “new” is not always better. They also knew building a school based on traditional learning concepts would not be the best solution; it would not be enough.

Because teaching children with unique mental, physical, emotional and learning needs is so challenging, the opportunity to build a school that was designed specifically for them was at the same time daunting and exciting. They understood that the new school concept needed to look, feel and function quite differently. So, the design process needed to creatively connect the dots of three seemingly dissimilar environments: schools, mental health facilities, and secure environments. With that, they needed to combine the overriding themes of dedicated teaching/learning, compassionate care/healing, and human-centered safety.

Healing Learning Environment
Healing Learning Environment

This also meant that in the design process the team needed to be extremely agile in their thinking and establish a team culture of trust, engaged listening and learning, and open communication.

With such a unique challenge, a first response might be to come up with solutions to just fix what wasn’t working in the existing schools…to only react to the defects of current conditions. Key to their success, though, was their attitude of encouraging each other to come up with fresh ideas; to dream, hope, and imagine something more; to ask the “what-if” questions. This is where they became “champions of change” and where new leaders emerged out of creative struggles and embracing those too infrequent ‘ah-ha’ moments we all hope for in design.

As any coach will tell you, “champions” are not made of me’s but rather we’s. These champions came together as a team with a broad range of voices and interests. Guided and supported by their leadership, they listened hard to each other and began to develop a compelling vision for the project, which was for the kids. The new vision helped establish consensus on guiding principles, which helped focus the team and provide clarity for decision-making.

It was here that we could to see the courage of individuals who spoke out new ideas and perspectives with their minds and hearts. Even though they were all still doing their “regular jobs,” they stayed with the process with enduring stamina and a positive attitude. Their collaborative nature enabled differing ideas and priorities to merge into authentic concepts. Time and again, they set their own personal priorities and egos aside to see and hear an issue from a different point of view. This is truly rare.

Was it all fun and games? No. Like every project, there were really big challenges. However, the dynamics of this team sharing a compelling common purpose was worth the extra effort. No one person needed to own the idea or be personally recognized for their efforts. They worked through it, because it was right thing to do.

It is cliché to say that champions are forged out of hard work. In this case, it seems more than applicable. The teachers, administrators, and district staff, through their collective voice, became quiet champions of creativity and advocates for a new way and environment to teach and heal special kids. They are not unabashed, but they also aren’t seeking praise. And maybe that is what makes them great, because, in the end, true champions work to lift up others, and for the children who are benefitting from their vision and work, these champions have definitely shown the value their students have in the world.

Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center Honored as Top Healthcare Design Project

Measuring a modest 21,000 square feet, Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center located inside the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center is a physically small component in the world of healthcare offerings at the renowned Rochester campus.

Designed to elevate health and wellness to sit side-by-side world-class medical care, the center received big recognition Friday as it received the 2016 FAB Award for Healthcare from the Northland Chapter of the International Interior Design Association. An interior design recognition program, the award recognizes projects that are fresh, artistic, and brilliant. A three-judge panel that this year included architecture and interior design veterans from firms in Los Angeles and the Walt Disney Company juried the competition.

“The Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center really represents a different approach where athletes at all levels can find the best in patient care with the expertise to develop optimum performance,” said Pete Smith, AIA, president and CEO of BWBR and the principal on the project. “The challenge was to design a center that really speaks to that wide-ranging audience. It’s exciting when a panel of people not involved with the project says the design met the objectives.”

Opened in 2014, Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center was part of an expansion that opened the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center to patients and guests of Mayo. Mayo Clinic designed the program in partnership with EXOS, a world leader in human performance, to add performance and nutrition solutions to medical care for athletes of all ages and levels.

Extending that vision into injury prevention and rehabilitation, the design of the sports medicine center utilizes every square inch for a variety of athletics that includes a synthetic ice rink, an indoor basketball gymnasium, multipurpose artificial turf area, a performance training zone with cardio and weight equipment, and assessment and procedural rooms. A nutrition bar sits in the mix with the athletic training zones to expand patient and client conversations beyond physical movement. The design immerses visitors into an environment of health and performance.

Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center is part of a multi-story expansion to the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center which BWBR initially designed. Opened in 2007 to improve employee access to health and wellness programs, the expansion builds on the successes of that initial program to give more people access to Mayo Clinic’s research and expertise in health and medical care.

“Healthcare is in the midst of revolution where patients who may not be sick or injured are still seeking advice and guidance to a healthier and better way of living,” Smith said. “The design of centers like Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center are meeting the demand, energizing and empowering guests on their journey to better health and wellness.”