A NEW LANDSCAPE FOR AUTISM: THE FUTURE OF THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

The Center for Discovery® hosted a groundbreaking conference at Wells Fargo HQ in New York on World Autism Awareness Day that brought together thought leaders in the worlds of architecture, technology, and healthcare, to discuss a new landscape for autism. The conference opened with a video message of support from U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, of New York.

“An estimated 90% of young people with autism between the ages of 21 and 30 are living at home with their aging parents,” The Center for Discovery®’s Associate Executive Director, Dr. Terry Hamlin, said as she kicked off the conference, “and no one is thinking what we can do differently. That is what this conference is about.” Dr. Hamlin talked about the evolution of facilities for people with autism and said the future is clear: we need smart, intuitive and healthy buildings. “Environment really does matter,” she said.

Jennifer R. DuBose, the Associate Director of the SimTigrate Design Lab and principal associate in the College of Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology said design can empower, engage, protect and support sleep and healing. She said there were great opportunities for collaboration with The Center, particularly given SimTigrate’s Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) Empowerment Program. The program is exploring how to help empower those with MCI to stay at home and be independent in part through creating a flexible, safe, engaging and personalized environment that enhances function. “We see it as a living lab,” DuBose said. Dr. Gari Clifford, one of our lead researchers, who is also part of the MCI Empowerment Program as a member of the faculty of Georgia Tech and Emory University, discussed the evolution of both wearables and sensors, and how they might be used in a smart health care environment.

Real-time illustration of conference themes and presentations.

Jody Baldwin, of Envise, a building technology integrator, said various technologies already exist but needed to go to the next level: “From reactive to proactive, from smart to intuitive, from sort of fast to really fast…and there should be no buttons to push.”  Baldwin said there were so many opportunities to harness technology to create more healthy living spaces including human-centric (biorhythmic) LED lighting that can be changed to effect health, mood, eyesight and behavior as well as selective noise reduction technology.

Dr. John Coles, who is leading an exploratory analysis of how The Center’s data can be used to better understand and improve outcomes, talked about the importance of compiling as much data as possible. “Now is the time to build the frameworks for understanding and support before we are hit with the full weight of the independent housing crisis,” Coles said. Dr. Coles is also one of The Center’s lead researchers.

Attorney Gary Mayerson, whose firm Mayerson & Associates was the first civil rights law firm in the nation dedicated to representing individuals with autism and related developmental disorders, focused on the importance of the transition process to adulthood. “Transition is currently all about the outcome,” he said “and too many school districts gloss over the transition process.” An estimated 50,000 people with autism age out of school supports and services and enter adulthood every year which “makes it imperative that parents advocate for their children to get what they’re entitled to,” says Mayerson. He emphasized that the generalization of skills is critical in preparing children for adulthood while acknowledging that it’s expensive and time-consuming to teach, requiring innovation and support. “It’s not so much an expense but a wise and sustainable investment in our future,” he concluded.

The Center’s President and CEO, Patrick H. Dollard, led a panel about the future of safe and healing environments that included TCFD’s research partners, Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Rune Simeonsson, Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, as well as Dr. Turner Brooks, an adjunct professor at Yale School of Architecture and a principal of Turner Brooks Architects, who designed The Center’s Ridge Campus. “We are talking about physical space being part of the healing process,” Dollard said. Yale-trained architect and feng shui expert, Alex Stark, talked about how the environment always reflects humanity and vice versa. He said it was critically important to build environments that make people feel free and safe at the same time and that to create these healing spaces, it would be necessary to question the current paradigms. “We have to work fully horizontally. I want to hear everything that the nurses have to say, for instance, and if we have to change the ways we operate, then we have to do that.” He also talked about his love of working at The Center because the land was always respected: “In an attempt to heal and harmonize the well-being of the children, they were also healing the land.”

Robin Guenther, an expert in sustainable healthcare design and a principal of Perkins + Will who designed The Center’s Discovery Health Center, the first health care facility in the country to receive LEED certification, said it was clear that a radical rethinking of the built environment is required. “How does the built environment need to relate to nature, and how can that relationship help people feel safe and nudge them toward health,well-being and happiness?” said Guenther. “It’s the central question.”

Dollard concluded with some thoughts about the need to build The Center’s endowment to $200 million to confront the challenges of the future. He said the new Children’s Specialty Hospital and Research Institute will lead the way in a new approach to care, and help inform necessary policy changes at both state and federal levels. Dollard concluded on an upbeat note: “The Center’s great power is our brilliant families that are smart and extremely generous. I think we have the foundation to make this work…We have magic in the Catskills.”

Check out additional highlights and videos of each speaker here

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