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Lighting for autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions

More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. The annual cost of autism services to U.S. citizens is $236-262 billion (Buescher et al., 2014). Combating autism isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s a public health and economic imperative. 

Lighting design can play a key role.

Eaton’s lighting division team talked with experts in health and design about the impact of lighting on people with autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions. Kim Steele is director of urban health initiatives for The Elemental Group, and Sherry Ahrentzen, PhD, is Shimberg professor of housing studies at the University of Florida. Steele and Ahrentzen co-authored a book, “At Home with Autism: Designing Housing for the Spectrum” (Policy Press at the University of Bristol, 2015).

Is it better to provide specially designed spaces and lighting or “neurotypical” environments?

Ahrentzen: There isn’t a single correct answer. There will always be particular circumstances and conditions that dictate the best solution in any given situation. Where people are as well as their unique health issues, support systems and available resources should all be considered.

Steele: Residential applications give us the ability to tailor the environment. Certain lighting can wreak havoc on people who are on the autism spectrum, and our goal is to give them the highest possible quality of life. But it’s also worth noting that the lighting solutions that often work well for autism also work well for the general population. Nobody likes flickering lights; people on the spectrum may just have a heightened response to them.

What are primary lighting concerns for autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions?

Steele: Lights that flicker or emit sound are a big no-no, especially for people who are hypersensitive. These people are acutely aware of sensory input in their environment and can be disturbed more easily.

Ahrentzen: Personal control is incredibly important as well. From intensity and dimming to focusing and even color rendering, lighting controls help create better environments for everyone but especially people on the spectrum, because they’re more easily affected by sensory input.

What role can lighting technologies like LEDs and advanced controls play? 

Ahrentzen: While spending time with the Eaton’s Lighting Division team, I found it fascinating to learn about some of the latest technologies and, in particular, advanced control systems. Some automated controls, like occupancy sensors that cause lights to turn on or off, might actually be disorienting for some people on the autism spectrum. But there are also lights that can be activated by body movements, which is great for individuals who have trouble flipping switches due to a hand or wrist condition.

Steele: Lighting innovations from companies like Eaton support sensory rooms for people who are hypersensitive or hyposensitive. These rooms have controllable light sources and light therapy, and they have no fluorescent lights.

Studies have shown daylighting can aid cognitive activities and overall health. Does this concept also apply to autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions?

Ahrentzen: There have been many studies on how daylighting and different spectrums of light affect our circadian rhythm and other health aspects. For example, better access to daylight could help people with sleep disorders. The growing body of research on daylighting and its relationship to the circadian rhythm will lend to a lot of future work in how we design lighting for people with autism.

Can daylighting actually be harmful for people on the autism spectrum?

Steele: Absolutely. Access to daylight is important for everyone. But one caveat is the issue of control. Daylight is terrific, but intense, direct sunlight and the resulting glare can be problematic. People who are hypersensitive don’t do well with direct sunlight. Window blinds and strategic window placement can help. Certain materials can absorb glare. Seasonal adjustments can be made. Colorings and exterior overhangs can mitigate direct sunlight. Through architectural design, this population can have access to daylight in a healthy, safe way.

Does lighting have a greater impact on children or adults?

Steele: Our research is focused on adults, but I’m the parent of a child with autism, so anecdotally, I can say that kids’ issues mirror adults’ issues in many ways. In fact, studies show that by the time many people with autism reach adulthood, they have learned to compensate for their issues. The bottom line is that what works well for children will likely work well for adults, and vice versa.

What are specific lighting solutions for people on the autism spectrum?

Steele: We can learn a lot from strategies developed with children in mind to help adults. All of the fluorescent lighting at my daughter’s school is being replaced to mitigate negative factors, and covers are being installed to add visual interest. Classrooms are also providing a variety of spaces with varying light levels so that spaces are clearly divided. Clearly marking spaces by their distinct purpose is very important for children who need routine, and this is right in line with what we’ve seen in adult research. I’ve also seen pediatric hospital suites with lighting panels over cloud scenes, which makes the lighting more interesting and less intense. Subdued task lighting can support a sense of calm and focus, and overhead LEDs can create a more vibrant environment.

How should lighting for homes, schools and other specific spaces be approached?

Ahrentzen: When it comes to schools, the main challenge is designing for diversity. People – not all of whom have the same needs – have to be there for a set period of time, and they can’t leave. The home environment is a different story. Many people with autism live with family or housemates, but home still offers a greater ability to individualize lighting and other environmental conditions. Home provides much greater control. But here’s the catch: you have to get it right at home. If you don’t, the consequences will be felt more acutely than elsewhere. Home is meant to be a safe place and a nest, and it’s where we spend most of our time.

Steele: Remember, people with autism are not that radically different than the neurotypical population. In many ways, they’re just more sensitive to environmental cues. Lighting should be designed in a way that’s legible and inviting – things that are also important for the general population. In outdoor lighting, make sure pathways are clearly marked. Here, downlighting is important, because it lights the path and reduces glare. In interior residential lighting, opt for the best available products that offer the greatest control and fewest drawbacks like flickering, irritating sounds and dimmers that hum. A humming dimmer switch or blinking light could put an autistic person over the edge.

What are other conditions besides autism that can be affected by lighting design? 

Ahrentzen: Typically, we’re talking about people with other neurological challenges. Dementia is a great example. There are clear differences between dementia and autism, but both patient groups struggle with things like clarity, wandering, attention spans and how the brain processes information. The beautiful thing about autism is that it’s always been framed as a spectrum condition. This recognizes diversity. It recognizes that shared experiences can be relevant and helpful for many individuals, regardless of their condition.

Steele: There is a sub-type of autism called “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.” People with this condition have a lot of the same sensory issues but do not receive the same services and insurance coverage as someone with autism.

There is also a whole group of people who may not have a diagnosis but are sensitive to bright lights and persistent noises. This population could benefit from the systems we design for people with autism. In fact, if everyone designed environments with autism in mind, the world would be a really wonderful place. All of our materials would be non-toxic, lights would be task-specific and fluorescents would be upgraded to LEDs. Designing for autism is just a great approach to design.