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Building an Autism-Friendly Space: A Tour of the Drexel Autism Institute’s Future Home

Staff members of the new A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the first autism research organization focused on a public health science approach, tour their future office space.

“We’re going to need an autism-friendly building.”

Dr. Jennifer Plumb, a clinical social worker, made this comment mid-way through a tour of the future home of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute on Market Street in University City, Philadelphia.

I had the opportunity to join Plumb, who just began working at the Institute this month as its Outreach Core Director, and several other Institute staff, for a walkthrough of the future space before construction begins next week. (They currently work out of a temporary office in Center City.)

Right now the space leaves a lot to the imagination – a broad concrete floor, exposed ducts, and nothing breaking up the space except a lot of support pillars.

Lindsay Lawer, the Institute’s senior manager, had been through before with the architects. She put her spatial recall to the test, as she pointed out the future locations of hallways, waiting rooms, offices and, and cubicles. And, of course, state-of-the-art technologies: Three clinical assessment rooms will have floor-to-ceiling two-way mirrors and advanced A/V tech for observation during evaluations conducted as part of the EARLI study and other research programs.

But the most exciting thing about the tour was seeing the thought being put into the future experience of the space – the autism-friendly factors Plumb pointed out.

The view from a window in the Drexel Autism Institute’s waiting area overlooks the railroad trestle on Market Street painted with Drexel’s name and dragon.

What did she mean by “autism-friendly”? In the broadest sense, when you’re looking at the world through the eyes of children and adults with autism, you design things a little differently.

This way of thinking, in real world terms, is one small way the Institute’s staff is carrying out the mission that includes preventing disability associated with autism – by making sure that the spaces and interactions are empowering and enabling for all visitors to have a comfortable experience.

There’s more to that mission, of course, in terms of all the research and outreach activities that the Institute is doing, and gearing up to begin doing in the coming months and years, using  a public health science approach to addressing the challenges of autism spectrum disorders. The Institute’s new website is now live, and they will be adding more to it in the coming months. If you’re interested in more info about what’s being planned, please take a look. Here are a few links to get you started:

The Institute’s new space is due to open in the summer of 2013.

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