Developing a real home - design, features and adaptations

Few know more about creating and adapting homes for people with autism and other disabilities than George Braddock and John Rowell, AIA, Three books Co-Authored by John Rowell, an ARCHway consortium member, and George Braddock, focusing on community housing issues for people with disabilities and their staff:


-Person Centered Environments
-The Bay Area Project, Housing Design Guidelines

-Design for Safety

ARCHway recognizes that residential building features and layout can facilitate or inhibit the overall quality of life that consumers experience as well as their ability to learn functional life skills and master the activities of daily living.  Many current group homes and facilities in which consumers with autism may be placed are structurally and programmatically designed for consumers with diagnoses other than autism.  The least preferred option is to occupy an existing residence without identifying and addressing those aspects of the building that could significantly impair the staff and consumers’ ability to engage in the various structured activities that constitute key components of a therapeutic  program

One of ARCHway‘s on-going efforts is to compile and integrate elements of architectural design and construction that would be of particular benefit or relevance to consumers with autism.  For example, some consumers with autism will be prone to such vocalizations as screaming, loud singing and verbal self-stimulation in the form on loud “scripting” – repeating bits of dialogue or phrases.  Since these high volume vocalizations are fairly common amongst consumers with autism, properly designed homes will ensure that proper noise insulation is built into living quarters.  At the same time, in situations where clients might need closer monitoring and sound insulated walls might reduce staffs’ ability to attend to what is going on in the home, it may be necessary incorporate a variety of assistive technology including wall jacks into rooms so that intercom/monitoring capabilities could be initiated on an as-needed basis to address situations where the soundproofing might interfere with staffs’ ability to attend to condition of more volatile or vulnerable residents.  Other considerations that FAST has identified as core elements of the residential space and its related programmatic aspects are:

  • Their own home -- Most typical adults enjoy having their own private living space which they can call their own and decorate or use in a way that they are free to define.  An example of one of ARCHway’s residential models would provide consumers with such a space.  While the extent and nature of that space would depend on the particular goals, capabilities and preferences of each resident, there would be a bedroom for each individual.  Many consumers with autism find it comforting to come into their bedrooms and use some time alone in that room to desensitize or calm down after a long stimulating day in the outside world.  Depending on the functional level of the consumer and other characteristics of the facility, this allocated private space might be more expansive.  It might include an additional room or rooms to support a more independent style of living, e.g., private bathroom, TV/music room, kitchenette for making simple snacks.  Other consumers with autism may not be as interested in having a private space and for them other arrangements for shared living situations can be developed. 
  • Windows -- Typical window glass which is easily broken and produces sharp, cutting shards can be especially dangerous for consumers with autism and constitute a serious liability issue.  FAST will ensure that windows contain safety glass or apply Plexiglas in front of breakable glass windows.  Likewise, unbreakable mirrors will be installed in the facility.
  • Boundary Monitoring -- Ideally, some of the higher functioning consumers will achieve enough autonomy where they will be able to enter and exit the facility with minimal supervision or accompaniment.  However, for most consumers with autism, there is a need for residential support staff to continually know what is going on in the facility and the surrounding property.  This can be done with such devices as remote doorbell systems that will always alert staff when consumers are entering or exiting their premises.  Staff will also need to be aware of consumer whereabouts when they are engaged in daily programs that involve such activities as strolling around the facility grounds or engaging in some outdoor activity such as gardening.  While staff presence will normally be sufficient for engaging and aiding consumers in such activities, video monitoring systems will be in place to serve as back up should specific situations arise where staff feel the need for enhanced capabilities to ensure the safety of the consumers.   Such video monitoring, as well as security fencing, may also be needed in cases where one of more consumers in a facility has a history of elopement.    
  • Sleeping Quarters/Office for Staff – Staff offices and sleeping quarters must be optimally located to provide ready access to consumer’s quarters.  A private suite would be made available including a private restroom should be provided for staff use only.  This suite may also be available for a house parent or a Teaching Family Model where a married couple may live there rent free in exchange for assigned caretaking responsibilities).  Staff quarters must also have two exits in situations where consumers are likely to engage in aggressive actions with staff.
  • Centralized Spaces  -- While recognizing the importance of having some private space, a FAST-designed facility would feature certain adequately sized and centrally located common spaces to serve as staging areas for structured and unstructured interactive activities between residents with each other and with staff.  These critical therapeutic spaces are a dual purpose meeting/recreation room and a kitchen/dining area.  Consumers across the autism spectrum have a need to develop or improve their social skills.  Higher functioning consumers, like typical adults, will prefer a balance between alone time and time spent with others.  Lower functioning consumers who would be quite content to remain in isolation are brought into these settings to counter those isolationist tendencies and engage in interactions that enhance the development or maintenance of their social skills.  Group activities centered around food preparation and meals or recreation (e.g., watching movies or TV) provide numerous opportunities for residents to progress in the acquisition of life skills and successfully engage in daily living activities with others.   Other areas such as porches and outdoor playing fields, if available, can serve as supplemental spaces for the same purposes just described.
  • Dedicated Storage -- In order to effectively teach functional life skills, it is important that the residence have certain designated storage areas from which the consumers remove and return various items which they use as part of their daily activities of living.  For example, a storage closet just inside the main entrances to the facility is needed.  This closet is used to store coats, boots, shoes, raingear, umbrellas, etc.  In the closet will be slippers which the consumer will wear indoors.  In this same area, a bench will be provided so that consumers can easily take shoes and gear on and off and store them properly.  All items will have their designated shelving spot and items must be returned to their designated spot after use.  For consumers who have programmatic goals associated with the selection of weather appropriate clothing, this designated storage area becomes the focal area for staff teaching and consumer learning.  Likewise, bedroom closets will be designed and organized so that clothing outfits may be grouped together for each day of the week and for specific occasions that may focus on work or play.   This same concept applies to bathroom, kitchen and laundry areas.  There is also a designated storage area for household cleaning devices (e.g., brooms) and non-toxic products. Any dangerous cleaners are under lock and key at all times.  In each case, the objects used in daily living activities are arranged and labeled so that consumers are provided with a highly structured environment in which they can work on individual goals and preferences to progress in their development of independent living skills.   In all instances, these storage areas can be secured if necessary.  In addition, out of concern for the safety of the consumers, there should be one or two storage areas that are kept constantly secure and contain those objects (e.g., caustic cleaning products) that would be considered too dangerous for use by consumers except under close supervision or not at all.