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The MIND Institute

January 1, 2004
by root
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The M.I.N.D. Institute
University of California—Davis, Sacramento, Calif.

Photography b y Richard Barnes. A focal point of today’s research on autism is the M.I.N.D. Institute (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders), on a 10-acre campus- within-a-campus at the University of California—Davis. Three buildings of a planned five-building project were completed in 2003, and they encompass a number of unique design features intended to accommodate children and their families, both as patients and as research subj ects.

Recently, two key players in the development of the center and the design—Robert Hendren, DO, the institute’s execu tive director and chief of child psychiatry, and Bill Blanski, a design principal for the Minneapolis-based architectural firm Hammel, Green & Abrahamson (HGA)—responded to questions from Behavioral Health Management.

Where did the idea of creating a speci ally designed environment for autism treatment and research originate?

Dr. Hendren:
There were lots of thoughts and ideas from pa rents based on their experiences with other places that manage autism. These tended to be located in small, dark basement areas with flicker ing ceiling lights; they were quite claustrophobic. The M.I.N.D. Institute, as designed, seems protective but not constraining. It differs f rom children’s hospitals, too; while their toys and bright colors excite children, they overstimulate children with autism.

Blanski: Research has shown that these children are overstimulated by bright primary colors. Earth tones, however, such as browns and ta upe, they find soothing. We also incorporated furniture fabrics without patterns, because these children tend to fixate on patterns and star t counting.

How has this open design worked operationally?

Dr. Hendren:
The kids seem much calmer; there’s not as much yelling and running around. Even though they can hear a lot of noise from other kids, some of which might be upsetting, with this desi gn the building seems to absorb the sound. The researchers appreciate that they are actually able to see and visit with the people for whom they are working so hard.

Blanski: The examination/interview rooms have been specifically designed to look like home, with ove rstuffed living room furniture, homelike lighting fixtures, and even a residential-style kitchen to assist in replicating a homelike environ ment.

How are the research areas designed?

The assessment tables are made of natural wood, have rounded edges, and are positioned low so that children are comfortable sitting at them. The examination tables are quite unique in that they are also made of wood, covered with furniture-quality padding, and they blend in with the finishes of the room. BHM