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How environment affects adults on the autism spectrum

Beth Noble More and more, it is acknowledged that one of the core differences in people on the autism spectrum is how we process information from the world around us. Often this sensory information is too much – too loud, too bright, too crowded, too overstimulating. As an autistic building science student, I was interested in how the built environment was a factor in this.

For my Master’s degree, I set out to investigate how the indoor environment affected adults on the autism spectrum. 83 autistic and 134 neurotypical adults participated in an anonymous online survey, which focused on experiences of home and workplace environments, and public spaces.

Across every environment and public space type, the autistic adults reported significantly higher discomfort and distress than the neurotypical adults. Further, 90% of autistic adults reported that they had avoided a public space because of the indoor environment before, with the most common places avoided being shopping malls (73%), restaurant/bar/cafes (66%) and supermarkets (63%). As a cause of discomfort and avoidance, People and People Noise factors were rated the highest, and had the greatest difference between the groups, followed by Glare and Electric Light.

The results of this study align with existing anecdotal evidence. It is likely that the built environment is a greater factor than many realise in impeding the ability of autistic people to participate in their communities, including potentially affecting health and employment.

I’m currently working on getting my work published in an academic journal, so that this can be used as evidence and as a base for further research. I’ve also recently started a PhD continuing this line of research, focusing on the design of artificial lighting systems.

If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to contact me at beth.noble@vuw.ac.nz or my full Master’s thesis is freely available to read at https://bit.ly/2FMXUQ3