Planning with Autism in Mind: A Six Feelings Framework

According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, one in 59 children lived with autism in 2014, up from one in 150 in 2000.

Autism's increasing prevalence calls for planners to plan and design the public realm in ways that improve the quality of life for people with autism.

The latest Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Memo discusses how planners — working together with people with autism — can help create environments where individuals with autism can thrive. The PAS Memo, which resulted from an Ohio State University City and Regional Planning research project, conceptualizes a "Six Feelings Framework" for the public realm.

Autism-friendly Public Spaces Guidelines

When an adult with autism is using public spaces or infrastructure, planning and design implementations should make him or her:

  1. Feel connected — The public realm is easily reached, and entered, and leads to destinations.
  2. Feel free — The public realm offers relative autonomy and the desired spectrum of independence.
  3. Feel clear — The public realm makes sense and is not confusing.
  4. Feel private — The public realm offers boundaries and provides a retreat.
  5. Feel safe — The public realm diminishes the risk of being injured.
  6. Feel calm — The public realm mitigates physical sensory issues associated with autism.

Read "Autism Planning and Design Guidelines 1.0" to learn more about the "Six Feelings Framework," the research process and protocol, and OSU planning students' interpretation of the framework.

Applying the Research

Ohio State students continue to visualize infrastructure designs including (but not limited to) wayfinding, sidewalks, parking lots, and parks that meet the spirit of the "Six Feelings Framework."

Students Safa Saleh and Alex Blankenship are applying the framework to commercial and campus settings. Saleh's work focuses on a redesign of an important section of Ohio State's campus, retrofitting the pedestrian experience around the six feelings.

"I work with kids with autism who need clearer wayfinding than do neurotypical users," Saleh said. "Clarity, connectivity, and freedom are front and center feelings I hope the users experience."

Blankenship is redesigning the Polaris retail area in north Columbus, Ohio.

"I'm employing the framework to reimagine parking lots that feature eight-foot sidewalks between each parking row," Blankenship explained. "The new parking lot focuses on evoking feelings of clarity, safety, and of being easily connected as users move from their cars to their destinations."

Sketch of redesigned retail parking lots using the Six Feelings Framework.

Sketch of redesigned retail parking lots using the Six Feelings Framework. Image by Alex Blankenship.

Autism-friendly Designs Enhance Urban Planning

In Chicago, OSU student Michael Kaufman's designs combine mobile technology with simple amendments to existing public infrastructure to assist adults with autism in navigating Chicago's massive public transit network.

"The experience I'm creating with the framework attempts to mitigate triggers, such as loud sounds, personal space, and stress associated with orientation and navigation, that impact feelings of freedom, safety, clarity, calmness, privacy, and connectedness."

Athens, Ohio, is incorporating the research in its comprehensive plan update.

"The Six Feelings Framework is helpful for planners to understand the core needs of the autism community," said Paul Logue, AICP. "As people with autism should feel free, clear, private, safe, calm, and connected in Athens's public realm, incorporating this framework into our plan can improve the city for all users."

Learn More

Read "When Every Day Is Sensory Overload" in the October 2018 issue of Planning magazine.

Top image: Ohio State University students Safa Saleh and Alex Blankenship discuss redesigns of retail parking lots. Photo by Kyle Ezell, AICP CUD.

About the Author
Kyle Ezell, AICP CUD, is a professor of practice at The Ohio State University's Knowlton School's City and Regional Planning program, owner of Ezell Planning and Design, LTD, and an administrator of the American Planning Association's Planning for Underserved Populations Interest Group.

July 25, 2018

By Kyle Ezell, FAICP CUD