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A parachute for the cliff

A Knowlton School of Architecture professor and his students devise ways to make cities more livable for autistic adolescents and their families.

Throughout childhood and adolescence, people with autism often are supported by a network of educational and social services. As they turn 18 and cross other milestones, they approach what’s often described as a cliff — when that support abruptly ends. With encouragement from alumnus Rick Stein, trustee of nonprofit Autism Living and dad to a son with autism, a professor of practice in city and regional planning at Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture put his students on the case. Professor Kyle Ezell and his students met autistic individuals and their families to learn more about sensory challenges. Next, a design charrette helped students apply their insights to city planning best practices, resulting in recommendations for practical solutions. Says Ezell, “This is the first step — the first ideas that will be built on over the years.” The students’ work is already informing real-world planning: Athens, Ohio, has implemented autism-friendly building policy into a comprehensive plan. Ezell shared four key challenges students tackled.

Designing solutions to everyday challenges

An illustration depicting a person waiting on a bench


Chaotic high-traffic areas such as downtowns or campus hubs can aggravate sensory disruption.


Dedicate respite spaces at or near these areas, designed to provide a place to self-soothe and rest calmly in a quiet, comfortable space. Students focused on creating solutions that could apply in a variety of situations and spaces, many of which wouldn’t offer an obvious place to carve out safe, peaceful space.

An illustration depicting a car pulling up to a curb to pick up a person


Parents and caregivers of those with autism are frequently shooed away from waiting in busy or downtown areas, making rendezvous points confusing and stressful.


Designate pick-up and drop-off areas for persons with autism and sensory processing disorders. “That idea came from parents, group who are very frustrated by ... trying to find a place that they can park,” Ezell says. “They get chased off by signs and police.”

An illustration depicting a bicyclist and pedestrian sharing a multiuse path


Multiuse paths contain people, vehicles and dogs traveling in all directions, creating noise, confusion and stress.


Create dedicated lanes with assigned directions and barriers. “When we met with individuals with autism and their parents, they wanted to be able to use these paths. Their idea was to separate the uses,” Ezell says. The suggestion involved single-use and single-direction lanes separated by barriers.

An illustration depicting a magenta dot on a sign in a window


No universal symbol exists to help autistic individuals identify guidance toward safe spaces, help or directions.


A magenta dot would serve as a universal beacon or symbol to persons with autism looking for assistance. Whether in a retail environment or on mass transit, says Ezell, “this helps those who tend to have sensory overload cut through the noise.”

About the author

Brooke Preston

Brooke Preston is a lifestyle, culture and comedy writer based in Columbus.