A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Winter, 2018 | Number 1, Volume 32

Guest Editorial – Perceptual and Cognitive Disability Research

by Steven J. Orfield

Editor’s note: The Autism Research Institute has been actively involved in sensory-related research for the past 30 years. An important question is: How can we translate our understanding of sensory challenges to improving the quality of life for those on the autism spectrum? For the past decade, Steven J. Orfield, a colleague of mine and founder of Orfield Laboratories, has focused his efforts on designing sensory-optimal residential, school, and work spaces for those with autism as well as other populations. 

Professionals who design building structures typically do not take into account the perceptual and/or cognitive challenges experienced by individuals with various disabilities. Sometimes these challenges are referred to as the “invisible disabilities” within the inclusiveness community. Moreover, when designers are asked to consider the users’ perceptual and/ or cognitive disabilities, they often rely on intuition rather than on an agreed-upon, science-based approach. Consequently, the need for objective standards is paramount, given the increasing number of residential facilities, therapeutic clinics, and employment settings currently being designed for those with autism and other disabilities.  

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates the need for inclusive design for those with disabilities in order to properly access building structures.1 Yet, much of ADA is non-specific about perceptual and cognitive disabilities. In this article, I urge professional designers to bear in mind various populations who suffer from perceptual and/or cognitive challenges. These challenges include aging, dementia, autism, mental illness, ADHD, PTSD, SPD, blindness, and deafness. Individuals with these challenges often experience numerous problems, including sensory hypersensitivity, limited sensory sensitivity, cognitive problems, and anxiety. Such issues affect at least 40% of the general population2. Consistent with the intent of the ADA, individuals do not have full access to a building’s structure if they cannot adequately process information in their surroundings, which can lead to challenges in navigation, attention, work ability, comfort level, and much more. 

In 2006, Orfield Labs began a 10-year journey researching perceptual and cognitive disabilities from a user perspective, starting with aging3, dementia4, and autism. This included thousands of hours of discussions with top academic and research experts associated with each area of sensation (e.g., vision, hearing) and each of the specialized disabilities (e.g., aging, autism, mental illness). Eventually, we came to the realization that one should not design for a diagnosis, but rather, one should design for the best predictable user experience. We also concluded that approximately half of the general population needs quiet and simplicity, and the results of disability-based design are preferred by those in the “neurotypical” world. 

Building Costs and Design Research: 

The Good News 

Designers and organization administrators often share common assumptions about what accessible buildings are, such as (1) they are more expensive; (2) they are more suitable for those with disabilities; (3) they require different solutions for different disabilities; (4) they inhibit many design choices;  (5) they require specializations on the design team, and (6) they are less likely to have an aesthetic design. All of these assumptions are incorrect, and they underlie the failure to solve many of the design challenges for those with disabilities. 

The Architectural Research Consortium has stated that any modest or large-scale building can be built with a similar budget for both individuals with and without disabilities. For example, a well-designed interior is more important than an expensive façade and an elaborate public entry. Furthermore, aesthetics should be more about a comfortable appearance than expensive finishes. A few years ago, the Facility Management Journal (FMJ) featured two of our buildings that were based on these premises.5 

The Design Research Concept of Autism 

During our discussions with many individuals active within the autism community, we came across a common perspective: “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one  person with autism.” Of course, this implies that one should not generalize any aspect of autism to the entire autistic community. With regard to designing a facility to support those on the spectrum, this would imply a nearly impossible task. However, after several years of study as well as discussions with numerous experts, we formed an alternative view on autism. That is, the variability among human beings, with and without autism, is roughly the same.  In other words, “when you’ve met one person, you’ve met one person.”  

The building design of the Fraser Clinic, located in Woodbury, Minnesota, is the first autism project worldwide that involved quantifiable perceptual performance standards that focused on the sensory sensitivity of children and adults on the spectrum. Prior to working on this project, we spent much time discussing daily challenges, with an emphasis on sensory sensitivity, with two dozen individuals with Asperger’s syndrome. Their personal experiences were very helpful when forming our approach to designing a user-experience building environment. 

As a result of our approach to understanding individuals with autism as well as designing structures for them, we focused our efforts on those who are hypersensitive to sensory sensations in their environment. We do acknowledge that there are at least two other “sensory” groups in autism, including those who are hyposensitive and often crave sensory stimulation (i.e., “sensory seeking”) and those who do not have any sensory challenges. 

Fraser Clinic: 

The Design Process 

The Fraser Clinic, directed by CEO Diane Cross and her facilities manager, Dale Raasch, began working with Pope Associates, an architecture firm, on designing a building that would become a branding statement for Fraser. They also consulted with A. J. Paron-Wildes who is a designer, the mother of a young man with autism, and the author of a number of books about design for autism.6 Ms. Paron-Wildes helped balance the structural design with personal experiences encountered by individuals on the spectrum. Orfield Labs was in charge of reducing or eliminating potential sources of sensory-related stress and tension within the clinic. This involved user measurements of acoustics, day lighting, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality.  

Basically, we did not want the clinic building to be perceived as imposing, institutional, or perceptually noisy. The primary goals were to create a general familiarity and comfort within the clinic and to avoid anything that would trigger hypersensitivity. Our first recommendation was to create a building façade that was more reflective of the sensitivity of children on the spectrum, since many of them suffer from anxiety and are fearful of unfamiliar settings. Staff at Fraser agreed with us, and the design of the new façade was low-key and suggested a welcoming and peaceful building environment. 

Furthermore, the design for all spaces within the clinic was nominally similar since many, if not most, individuals on the spectrum have an aversion to change in their environment. As a result, the building had, in general, a more monolithic design. That is, wherever the individual is located in the building, he or she will perceive the spaces as relatively the same. We also avoided using patterns or complex color schemes, graphics, non-representational pictures, and wall coverings. In many ways, our approach was to design a peaceful and simple Zen-like environment. 

Building Design Standards 

Based on research and experience, Orfield Labs established a set of building performance standards for those with autism and special needs. In general, the goal of these building standards is to reduce perceptual noise. These standards were formulated based on 10 years of studying perception and cognition, 20 years of collaborating with national RBD groups such as The Open Plan Working Group and the Architectural Research Consortium, and more than 30 years of hosting national design-research conferences. 

The performance standards were based on visual design research and involved defining, modeling, and measuring building environments with respect to perceptual preference and comfort. The results from these analyses provide recommendations regarding the amount of brightness and visual distraction while optimizing feature day lighting along with a pleasant view of the surrounding. 

More specifically, the building’s perceptual performance standards include: 


Reflectance, pattern, gloss, color, appearance, lighting level 


Noise levels, HVAC noise, privacy, reverberation (liveness), footfall noise, speech 


Drafts, stagnant air, humidity, thermal asymmetry 


Presence of noticeable smells or odors 


This article is based on research-based design, which has been covered in previous articles in FJM.7 

Biography Steven J. Orfield, founder of Orfield Laboratories, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has been involved with architectural and product consulting for more than four decades. He began his career by taking a human factors approach to architecture, with an emphasis on acoustics and lighting in relation to their impact on users’ experience. 

Within 10 years, Orfield Laboratories became the first independent multi-sensory building performance consulting lab in the U.S. Orfield has authored or been featured in more than 350 national and international articles, has written two commissioned white papers for ASID, has organized more than 100 international conferences, and is the founder of the Open Plan Working Group, the Sound Quality Working Group, and the Architectural Research Consortium. He can be reached at [email protected] or at Orfield Labs (612-721-2455).

Steven J. Orfield 

Orfield Laboratories, Minneapolis, MN


1. ADA Reference for Standards Document, https://www.ada. gov/2010ADAstandards_index.htm. 

2. 2016 Annual Disability Statistics Annual Report, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics (hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care and independent living). 

3. Seniors Housing and Care Journal, Steven J. Orfi eld, Aging Research, Design Education, and the Perceptual Limits in Seniors Housing Design: Development of a Research-Based Design Model for Better Aging Environments, Volume 21, 2013.

4. Seniors Housing and Care Journal, Steven J. Orfield, Dementia Environment Design in Senior’s Housing, Optimizing Resident Perception and Cognition, Volume 23, 2015. 

5. Olmsted County Real Estate Assessment, Steven J. Orfield, Facility Management Journal, September 2014. 

6. AJ Paron-Wildes Books, Interior Design for Autism from Birth to Early Childhood, Interior Design for Autism from Birth to Childhood to Adolescence, Interior Design for Autism from Adulthood to Geriatrics, 2013, ASID. 

7. OPWG/ARC Design Consortium XXX, Universal Design, Research from Senior Design and Related Fields, September 25-26, 2012 at Orfield Laboratories, Inc.