Progressive Architects, Cairo

And what it can teach us about architecture.

Can we design a building that makes life easier for people with autism? A place where autistic children can learn more easily and develop with less stress?

According to architect Magda Mostafa, the answer is yes. And creating these kinds of places, she says, can reveal important lessons about how people are impacted by architecture. Based in Cairo, Mostafa was approached to help design a school for children with autism and other special needs. Her involvement with that project, the Advance Special Needs Education Center, led her to develop the Autism ASPECTSS Design Index, a unique tool that assesses architectural environments for people with autism. It was developed with the input of teachers, parents, and caregivers and is now being applied to other projects internationally.

Buildings designed with the index in mind minimize the sensory input that can overwhelm children with autism, such as buzzing noises from lighting that others might not notice. They provide a smooth sequence of transitions from room to room, to enable the preservation of reassuring daily routines. And they allow for "escape spaces" where children who are feeling overwhelmed can find a "sensory haven."

At that Advance Special Needs Education Center in Cairo, a walkway helps students transition from space to space. Courtesy of Progressive Architects, Cairo.

At the same time, Mostafa notes that children have to learn how to navigate less controlled environments in order to avoid what she calls "the greenhouse effect," in which they are too protected from stimuli. The ASPECTSS index thus allows for different levels of stimulation within a given building or group of buildings.

Mostafa says that her work has profoundly affected the way she sees not only individual buildings, but cities as well. This interview, conducted by email, was edited for length.

What led to you receiving the assignment to design the autism education project?

At the time, there were virtually no services for children with autism in Egypt. A group of parents mobilized and started the NGO Advance. One of the parents reached out for my help in designing their new premises, which started as a retrofit project of an existing residential building. We later designed a purpose-built new premises for them.

How has this work changed the way you see your profession?

It has created a paradigm shift in how I look at and teach architecture. My work with autism is based on what I call the Sensory Design Model. This is based on two basic premises: the first is looking at autism as a sensory processing issue, and the second is defining architecture and design as the primary sources of the majority of sensory input in the built environment.

The Advance Special Needs Education Center in Cairo, the first building to apply the Sensory Design Model. Courtesy of Progressive Architects, Cairo

The Sensory Design Model respects the autistic way of viewing the world as an alternative, but not necessarily abnormal, way of experiencing the world, and designs accordingly. It has opened my eyes to this alternate way of seeing the world that is autism -- and given me a respect for it. It has also deepened my understanding of the impact of the built environment as a multi-sensory phenomenon.

How has it changed the way you see cities in general?

I tend to see any environment now as a complex composite of sensory experiences, which can be interpreted differently by different users. I also have a greater appreciation for the importance of natural environments as sensory havens where inputs are balanced organically.

Do urban environments present special opportunities and/or challenges for people with autism?

The urban environment is far more complicated than the architectural one, in scale, diversity of user groups, complexity and numbers of stakeholders/decision makers etc. As an overlay of issues such as mobility, public space, urban density, informal commerce etc. the user with autism has many more sources of sensory input to deal with, in addition to issues of social interaction which also pose a challenge. In extreme cases this can be debilitating.

During a recent meeting at the United Nations for World Autism Day, one of our speakers, an individual with autism, was unable to attend, partially as a result of the tremendous challenge of navigating the way from Germany to Geneva. When I discussed this issue with him through online chat -- which was the mode through which he was able to participate -- he said that challenges such as the noises, sights and social interactions resulting from travel cause him "physical pain" from the sensory overload.

The Advance Special Needs Education Center in Cairo, the first building to apply the Sensory Design Model. Courtesy of Progressive Architects, Cairo

This is not necessarily always the case. But it is exponentially more challenging to apply the concepts of sensory design, and the specifics of Autism ASPECTSS, to limit and control the sensory environment of a city. These concepts, however, can be applied to discrete urban spaces, particularly natural gardens and parks. Nature provides abundant opportunities for positive, subtle, and customizable sensory input.

In addition, part of the ASPECTSS concept is to provide environments that support skill development of individuals with autism that could then be generalized in the everyday city environment. ASPECTSS design would help develop skills that would mitigate the effects of sensory overload in other environments, by allowing the development of coping skills and avoiding what I call the "greenhouse effect."

Do you think the architecture profession is as aware as it needs to be of the special needs not only of people on the autism spectrum, but also of the simple human need to live in an environment conducive to productive, peaceful interaction and work?

I do not think the architectural profession, nor the autism community for that matter, are aware of the importance of the built environment for users with autism. The ASPECTSS Index is the first worldwide to address this issue in a structured and evidence-based manner.

On the more general level, however, I think the profession is becoming increasingly aware of the role of the built environment on productivity and general user wellbeing. I think we are emerging from the fog of the mechanistic thinking of the previous century, to one that appreciates diversity and the holistic user beyond just an ergonomic abstraction -- to achieve architectural functionality. Autism just hasn't been on the radar long enough to catch up, having only been described in the 1940s and accepted by the medical and accessibility communities as a distinct disorder in the 1980s. I hope to change this.

What have you learned from the autism work that could apply more generally to the needs of all people in their architectural environments?

Most importantly, I've learnt the value of an appropriate sensory environment. I've also become more aware of the basic human right of good architecture. It amazes me how exclusive the very rules we put in place for inclusiveness can be. We would never expect a person in a wheelchair to "adapt" to their environment when faced with a flight of stairs -- we are required to provide ramps at an appropriate gradient, width and location -- to respect that users' needs. We continue, however, to expect individuals with autism to modify their behavior to cope with the overloads our built environments bombard them with. Yes, they ultimately have to live in a non-customized environment, but we need to be more conscious of the quality required of the environments built specifically for their basic needs -- like learning environments and homes -- to allow them the sensory reprieve to develop the skills they need to cope. I hope ASPECTSS will be the first step towards that.

Top image: View of the sensory garden with water feature and expression walls in the Advance School for Developing Skills of Special Needs Children.

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