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A one-stop shop for autism services

June 1, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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Hope Network's Center for Autism provides patients with a calming space and a wealth of specialized services

When Hope Network decided to expand its residential treatment program for autistic youth to include outpatient services for children and adults, its goal was to create a “one-stop shop” for the autistic community of Grand Rapids, Mich.

“There has been a groundswell in interest over the last eight years from families for this need to be addressed in our community,” says Pat Howe, LMSW, LMFT, BCD, vice president of Hope Network and executive director of behavioral health services. “In talking with families, we heard time after time that they're often driving across the state to receive services, and it's a difficult experience to have a child with autism who has to go to multiple appointments across town and across the state.”

Hope Network's newly-opened Center for Autism (figure 1), financed by a $1.2 million capital campaign, offers clients everything from primary care to dental services, speech therapy, and psychiatric and behavioral therapy. And while the services most in-demand by families and clients were easy to gauge, thanks to a series of family forums, the Center's developers found that incorporating all of them into one space, along with special considerations for safety and effective delivery of services, was more challenging.

Figure 1. Hope Network's Center for Autism in Grand Rapids, Mich. Photos courtesy of Hope Network

Luckily, Hope Network's experience in serving autistic clients meant that it had the experts needed to make up the specialized taskforce assigned with designing the facility. Along with family forums, this taskforce relied on lessons learned at Hope Network's residential autism facility, scientific research, and an architect experienced in designing for an autistic population. The result is a unique facility that is not only tailored to individuals with autism, but also calming and safe.

At the outset of the facility planning process, the Center for Autism was envisioned as a brand-new, 8,000 square foot facility. However, with all of the amenities and services the taskforce hoped to include, the project's architect, Ken Dixon of Dixon Architecture, recognized that the planned 8,000 square foot layout “was really shoehorned.”

Another opportunity presented itself in the form of a 12,000 square foot building, previously used for light manufacturing, which was ideally located adjacent to Hope Network's DART (developmental adolescent residential treatment) building. The larger structure “freed up the opportunities to provide all the services and was kind of a breath of fresh air,” Dixon, who was also involved in the building of the DART facility, says. The one-floor layout also appealed to the design team, since stairs are a safety hazard for individuals with autism (figure 2).

Figure 2. The floor plan of Hope Network's Center for Autism

Once the space was secured, a remodeling plan was developed, based on participation from clinicians that would be working at the Center for Autism. “We sat down and went through all the research together as a team,” says Tamera Kiger, BSW, director of operations. “Then we looked at [Dixon's] preliminary design and said, ‘Where can we incorporate the different things that we are learning from research in this design?’”

Design characteristics for autistic consumers

The team's foremost concern was creating a space that would ensure low stimulation and low stress, but still radiate warmth and comfort. To achieve this aesthetic, the taskforce paid special attention to every nook and cranny and the facility, from the size of the hallways to the noise level of the heating system:

Structure, patterns, and colors. All sharp corners were eliminated, including those in the halls formed by the rectangular floor plan. Instead, smooth, curved walls were built to create the facility's signature curvilinear design (figure 3). “We find that children with autism respond much better if they're allowed to put their hands on the wall while going from place to place,” Howe says.

Figure 3. The Center's design deliberately avoids the use of bright colors and distracting art or other wall fixtures in order to establish a calm, low-stress environment for its population

Wayfinding patterns were then added to the walls, ensuring simplistic navigation through the facility. “The wayfinding patterns are all butterflies that are color-coded specific to a room,” says Kiger. “So if the children are wayfinding to the model living unit, it's the same color butterfly the whole way-in this case, gold. The colors are all warm pastels, and they're fun and youthful.”

Special attention was paid to the use of color throughout the rest of the facility as well, and the design relies on the same palette of warm pastels used in the wayfinding. “Each color was chosen for balance and triggers an emotion,” Kiger says. “Green is harmony, blue is for calming, yellow is an intellect color, and white is the color of peace.”

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