Researcher and building designer Shelly Dival was inspired by a family member to go on a global quest, investigating how to better design built environments for people with autism.

When building designer Shelly Dival’s grandson was diagnosed with autism four years ago, she started researching design strategies for homes and workplaces for neurodiverse people in Australia, but she couldn’t find much research or evidence to inform her practice.

So she turned her attention overseas, and, while she identified several well established organisations specialising in the discipline, she struggled to find an over-arching compilation to bring together the many disparate threads.

"I initially came across the work of George Braddock – founder of Creative Housing Solutions – which set me on a research path, and I became obsessed with finding out more, so I applied for a Churchill Fellowship in 2017,” Dival says.

She was awarded an eight-week study tour that took her to Denmark, The Netherlands, Egypt, the UK, France and the USA in 2018, to meet researchers and visit projects that employ best-practice principles.

In her report, written upon her return, Dival made two major recommendations:

  • That Australia be proactive in undertaking rigorous research into the effects of the built environment on those with autism to inform best practice guidelines; and
  • That Government and industry bodies work towards updating policy to include neurological access requirements within building codes and regulation.

Since the study tour ended, Dival has brought together various government departments and industry and peak bodies – in her home state of Western Australia and Victoria – to progress those goals.

“There are many organisations and not-for-profits working in this sector, but none of them deal particularly with the built environment, such as homes and workplaces,” she says, “so my aim is to cover that gap in the market.

 “I want to establish an NFP as a vehicle to deliver programs and collaborate on strategies to make places and spaces suitable for neurotypically diverse people, while keeping costs down for families and individuals.”

Dival has observed a gap in the current provision of government services too, citing the Specialist Disability Accommodation guidelines – which are part of the NDIS – and centred on universal access requirements.

“There is no provision for neurological accessibility, but two-thirds of NDIS participants are not physically disabled; they are neurologically atypical.”

Progress in this area is slow but forthcoming, with the Autism CRC expected to announce new research into built environment design strategies in late 2019.

On her travels, Dival saw many examples of joyful and appropriate design for people with autism, including L’eveil Du Scarabee (Beetle Awakening) in France, a home for 20 adults on the autism spectrum. Measures include designing for the senses as therapy; architecture that is less institutional and more homely; and minimising reverberation with acoustic treatments.

“In a country where disability is largely invisible, which makes it hard to get adequate recognition, this project came about because people were previously living in an aged persons’ home,” Dival says. “When that closed down, local authorities produced a new building to provide high care facilities for people with autism for high needs.”

Another highlight of her Fellowship tour was First Place-Phoenix in Arizona, a residential and transitional academy, which was under construction during Dival’s visit.

“The whole philosophy and approach was brilliant, it’s the culmination of 20 years of work by the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC),” Dival says. “It’s very much evidenced based – it took them three years just to find the right site to create the right community and support – and it’s designed for adults who required supported independent living.”

Having met with experts all over the world, Dival is now one of the few people globally who has a birds-eye view of all the siloed activities happening internationally, and as such, she has been invited back to First Place-Phoenix to speak at the upcoming First Place Global Leadership Institute Fall 2019 Symposium, in October.

She intends to establish a global network to share information across organisations and borders, and, back at home, Dival will consult directly with building owners, developers and architects – and co-ordinate input from allied health professionals – to ensure that autism-friendly strategies are incorporated into new projects.

“My services will form an integral part of the design team – similar to engineers and energy consultants – and I’ll provide guidance around what’s needed to design for autism,” Dival says. “It’s really important to get the right team together from the outset, because these overlays need to happen at an early stage.

“For projects to succeed, it’s also important to bring in the builder early, because sometimes the tender process doesn’t allow the right strategies to be incorporated,” she adds. “This is not simply a matter of business as usual; everyone in the team – from concept to handover – plays a role in delivering a positive outcome.”

Dival acknowledges it’s a momentous task to ensure the needs of people with autism are considered and catered for in the built environment.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm for change, but it’s one step at a time at the moment, because there is so much that needs doing,” she says.