What I’ve learned from the Dutch
I spent 7 days in a basement apartment of a lovely couple’s home near Vondelpark in Amsterdam, with a yellow labrador sitting outside the door in the warm sun. Aside from getting used to the killer-cyclists, who stopped for no one but the tram, my stint in Amsterdam was a gorgeous experience I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.
My contact in the Netherlands was Dr Flip Schrameijer, a social psychologist and founder of Architecture for Autism, a website which is dedicated to Autism-friendly built environments. With a background in the mental health sector, Flip is a researcher and author of multiple books within the healthcare sector. His interest in Autism evolved after writing some publications for a Dutch research centre, Dr Leo Kannerhuis, based around Autism.
While there, I was able to meet with Flip multiple times, during which we visited several buildings including two residential spaces for people with ASD. The tours provided insight into past and current work being undertaken in the Netherlands.
Here are some of my takeaways from the Netherlands.
Communication is King
From my observations, the Autism-friendly design climate in the Netherlands is a fragmented one, with very few professionals involved and little government and public interest.
Communication between industry professionals in the Autism-related sector, such as Psychiatrists, Occupational Therapists and Teachers, with Designers and Architects isn’t well established.
This isn’t the first time this has been a topic of conversation during my fellowship and, in some ways, it’s not surprising due to the general lack of recognition and understanding of the importance of strategic architectural design. Additionally, while each professional has their own specialised goals and priorities, none have enough knowledge of the others discipline to create the optimal environment for clients. Therefore, increased communication within a multi-faceted approach to Autism-friendly building design would be beneficial to individuals with Autism as each industry would contribute to a better and more integral outcome.
The experience in the Netherlands does highlight that communication between like-minded individuals is a key aspect that needs to be initiated globally between stakeholders, professionals and designers.
Another highlighted issue was, as in other countries such as France, the limited government commitment to this area of disability. This is evident in limited funding opportunities for further research and little implementation of policy for ASD friendly design strategies. While Dutch ASD people don’t seem to be missed in regards to healthcare services and care, the potential quality of life improvement for individuals on the spectrum, their families, friends and carers through specialist building design has untapped potential (as it does globally).
Keeping the Momentum
Autism has become a bit of a buzzword in the media, with a renewed interest in spreading awareness of the disorder, which is without a doubt a positive. However, Autism research in relation to architecture seems to have slowed in recent years. There are, of course, exceptions to this as I have met people on my fellowship continuing to conduct research. However, some professionals share Flip’s opinion that progress has slowed. While I’m unclear to the reasons why this might have happened, though partly I’m sure due to lack of commitment of governments globally, I’m excited by the fact that every single person I’ve met is enthusiastic about my research and the idea of more to come. It’s almost universally agreed that specific scientific research into the effects and influences of Autism-friendly design techniques needs to be investigated. It is my hope that this fellowship will be one of the spokes of the wheel that will keep the momentum rolling.
With like-minded people across the globe asking questions, critiquing assumed knowledge and finding innovative solutions to common difficulties for people living with ASD, we can make a difference.