EducationExclusivesOfficesThinkingDesigning autism-friendly school & office spaces: ASD architect Mark Ellerby explains all

Sophie Crossley12 months ago15 min

Have you ever found a room too noisy? Too bright? Too distracting? For people who are neurodiverse, such as those with Autism or ADHD, this is often the standard experience in workspaces and other public environments. To shed light on how we can be better advocates of inclusive design, we’ve spoken to architectural consultant Mark Ellerby.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the specific design elements that you incorporate to create a autism-friendly environments?

A: It’s really a huge topic and one that in a sense we can only lightly touch on.

My experience is principally within the Education arena where several factors are at work. One of the key design elements that we incorporate is creating spaces that are ‘friendly,’ easily understandable, and familiar to students, as this can help to reduce anxiety and create a sense of calm. We also focus on creating flexible spaces that can be adapted to accommodate different group sizes and provide safe spaces for students who may need to have a meltdown.

In terms of materials and lighting, we focus on using non-polluting and natural materials and ensure that there is good daylighting and interior lighting. This helps to reduce sensory overload and create a comfortable environment for all students.

Q: You mentioned ‘flexible spaces.’ What can those look like, and how are they helpful for creating autism friendly spaces?

A: The ‘flexibility’ of a space means that both smaller groups and larger groups can be catered for, while also maintaining ‘safe’ spaces. If a child or autistic person is going to have a meltdown, there should be an area to safely accommodate that. This could look like having chairs and tables that are easily moveable, room dividers, and quiet areas. I work primarily in schools, but these same principles can easily be applied to office spaces.

Another important thing to have in terms of flexibility is various sized spaces and linked spaces that teachers/students can use. Yes, the ability of one space to adapt to large or small group is definitely important, but so too is the availability of adjoining spaces that can be used at a moment’s notice.

Some other principles of flexibility include layout, design, and acoustics, which I’ve talked about in more detail in some of my LinkedIn articles.

Q: Are there any recurring design flaws that you’ve seen throughout your career?

A: In schools, one of the most ‘wasted’ of spaces is the circulation areas such as corridors. In a typical school, it is not rare to find that up to 40% of floor space is circulation – space used just to get to another space in the dry! It is often possible to integrate circulation with another area so that when not being used to access other rooms, it might be used for quiet learning, or used as part of a common area. It saves ‘wasted’ space but also makes for easily non-timetabled use, so maybe a break-out area from a classroom when a child needs to just move somewhere else for anxiety, or another reason.

Going off of that, another aspect that’s vital to my design process is creating a building with a heart; a space where there is a sense of community; a home. Very often we will include a learning space built around a kitchen. This is used to teach pupils cooking skills but it also has the function, when combined with a communal gathering area, as creating that sense of ‘home’. This is a very hard to define ‘design’ matter, but it plays a subtle but important role in creating a sense of belonging to somewhere and reducing anxiety. Its where staff and pupils meet and relax.

Q: In some of your previous work, you’ve mentioned the role of sound and soundscapes as a focal point in designing for ASD. Tell us more about that.

Sound can be enormously intrusive. Even the slightest of sounds can be a distraction and any unwanted sounds within a learning space will interfere with an individual’s ability to concentrate and learn. It will also create anxiety.

So eliminating unwanted sounds from outside spaces or adding rooms is very important. Then the quality of sound within the space is also vitally important. Reverberation is all about the ‘echo’ – how long a sound ‘hangs around’ and bounces back and forth. The shorter the reverberation, generally the sharper and more intelligible the original voice or sound. There is no repeated or unwanted ‘additional’ sound that the student has to mentally separate from the original. There is more complexity than that but generally the lower the reverberation, the better. It really helps to create a ‘calmer’ space for someone to concentrate. It’s good for all of us.

Building Regulations and School Design documentation set specific levels for both reverberation and sound separation in schools and these requirements are enhanced for Special Education Needs (SEN) and Autism.

Q: How do you work with school staff to ensure that the design meets their needs and is used effectively for teaching?

A: It’s also important that teachers, who have immensely demanding roles, have their own ‘retreat/working space’ so that they too have respite from the energy required for on-site teaching. We often incorporate staff rooms or retreat spaces into the design so that teachers have a dedicated area where they can work and take a break from the demands of teaching.

While this may seem like common sense, often the senior management of a school may say ‘well we already have staff rooms over here…’ It’s very easy to assume that senior school staff understand teaching of autism and ASD needs or needs of their staff. Opening up these discussions to staff is vital to ensuring both parties are able to thrive in their environments.

It’s easy just to think of the design as ‘all about students,’ but you also need happy teachers to deliver good education.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face when designing an autism-friendly school environment?

A: One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that the design is able to meet the needs of all students, as the needs of autistic individuals can be very complex and vary from person to person. Additionally, there can be resistance or lack of understanding from school management or stakeholders who may not fully understand the needs of autistic students.

One of my favourite sayings is from Chris Packham: “If you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person.” It’s so simple but really speaks to the individuality of every person. No one is the same or has all of the same needs – and inclusive design needs to account for that.

Q: Based on everything you’ve mentioned, there’s a lot to consider when focusing on inclusive design. What’s something that a school or organisation could jump on changing right away?

A: ‘Organisation!’ I’m probably the worst offenders but clutter in a room is to be avoided at all costs. You need good storage in schools but more importantly you need ‘good’ storage. This is not about one big junk cupboard where everything gets thrown in to never be found again, but purposeful storage where items have homes and are easy to find. Open shelving and unplanned furniture and storage leads to unplanned clutter and visual clutter. Just like unwanted sounds, clutter is really just ‘visual noise’ – it’s very distracting to someone who suffers easily from sensory overload. It’s one of the most common problems I encounter in schools. De cluttered spaces are calm spaces.

Q: What advice would you give to other architects who are interested in incorporating autism-friendly design into their work?

A: My advice would be to work closely with autistic individuals and their families to understand their specific needs and to incorporate those needs into the design. It’s also important to educate staff and management about the needs of autistic people and to advocate for their inclusion in the design process.

Much what is deemed ‘good design’ for people with autism is just as good for Neuro typical as Neurodiverse individuals. Good acoustics, intelligible buildings, good daylighting and interior lighting, good materials (no polluting), reduction in sensory overload, connection with green spaces – these things are good for all of us. So, really, designing for neurodiverse people is beneficial to everyone.


Mark Ellerby is the owner of Mark Ellerby Architects and  is a specialist in designing educational Facilities for Autism and SEND. Some of his projects include National Autistic Society Cullum Centres and work for the National Autistic Society.

Sophie Crossley

Sophie Crossley is our Content Editor. She has 5+ years of experience in comms with a focus on wellbeing, the built environment, and lifestyle.

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