Creating homes for people with autism and learning disabilities

Annie Field, Consultant Researcher at Campbell Tickell, discusses how to design a home for people with autism and learning disabilities. 

Stereotypes of people with autism fall into two categories: the ‘savants’, high-functioning but socially awkward individuals with an innate particular skill (think Rain Man or Sheldon Cooper); or non-verbal, low-functioning children, prone to violent meltdowns.

While both have aspects of truth, these examples do not help us understand what is after all a spectrum, with myriad variations. As Dr Stephen Shore said:

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

We cannot understand people’s experiences through stereotypes.

Failings of public institutions

Many of our country’s institutions either lack an understanding of autism and learning disabilities or have been prevented from acting on such an understanding.

Funding for students with special educational needs has been cut by 17% since 2015, preventing young people with autism from realising their full potential. Despite adults with autism being more likely to have a range of physical and mental health conditions, they are less likely to have their routine health needs met and often struggle to communicate effectively with medical professionals.

Most concerning, a Select Committee report recently found serious failings in mental health hospitals. This found that young people with learning disabilities and autism are too often detained, resulting in breaches of human rights, “terrible suffering” for the young people detained and “anguish” for their families.

We need systemic change to create a safe, supportive and empowering environment for people with autism and learning disabilities.

Social housing providers should challenge themselves to identify changes they could make in the provision of their services and the design of their buildings, in both general and specialist provision, to better support individuals with autism and learning disabilities.

Specialist design

There are some great examples of specialist design.

A scheme delivered recently by Cherwell District Council and Oxfordshire County Council, identified as good practice by Housing LIN, was designed specifically to meet the needs of residents with autism and learning disabilities. Consideration was given to the fixtures and fittings, internal decorations and outside garden spaces.

One particularly innovative feature is the design of an internal layout that allows tenants to safely move in a continuous figure of eight around the property with minimal visual change between rooms. This allows safe freedom of movement, with limited disruption for other residents.

The scheme is additionally forward-thinking, with wiring set up to allow for the addition of future assistive technologies. Thinking practically, we cannot redesign all services from the ground up specifically to meet the needs of potential tenants with autism and learning disabilities. However, there are several steps housing providers can take, requiring limited levels of investment, that could help create more positive, inclusive environments (see box: Designs for life).

Most importantly: take the time to get to know your tenants with autism and learning disabilities. Each individual will have different needs – by understanding them, you may be able to make small changes that make a significant difference to their experiences.

Designs for life
  • Decorate with neutral tones and avoid bold patterns to prevent sensory over stimulation. Consider offering redecorating vouchers to people with sensory processing needs.
  • Provide all documents for tenants in an easy read format and train staff in Makaton sign language to enable more effective communication.
  • Adapt external environments to make them more inclusive: add plants with different fragrances and textures to create a sensory garden and create private outside spaces.
  • Ensure all fixtures and fittings are as secure as possible, with unnecessary components removed to limit the potential for damage.

To discuss this article, contact Annie Field :

This article is also featured in CT Brief, Issue 46 – Health, Care & Support edition

You may also like to read the blog  by Sheron Carter, CEO of Habinteg: Delivering accessible homes for the future

Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.

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