Autism and Architectural Practice

The Architects Benevolent Society is running a campaign on mental wellness in the Architectural and related professions. Some of the responses to their question of “What causes you stress and anxiety?” resonated from an autistic perspective. Answers such as “Travel in crowds” and “Commuting to work” stand out, because sensory and communication differences feature in autism.

In a profession heavily reliant on what might be described as ‘autistic traits’ it would be no surprise if autistic people are more prevalent than in the general population. Perhaps many times more prevalent. I recall a Chartered Clinical Psychologist who specialises in autism saying, “I know a lot of Architectural Technicians….”.

Why does it matter if there are more autistic people in the architectural profession? 

Because attempting to pass as neurotypical (non-autistic in this case) by masking autistic traits, is strongly linked with mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. A recent study into suicide risk in autistic adults (and those with self-reported autistic traits) revealed the scale of the problem, with suicide rates nine times that of the general population. If there are undiagnosed autistic people, then this would go some way to explaining the high prevalence of anxiety, stress, and anxiety based depression in the architectural community.

Architecture is a highly technical profession which requires interpersonal communication to sell the service. Building an architectural practice as an autistic person can be difficult. Autistic people communicate in a different way from neurotypical people, and while networking and social skills are required to gain new projects and keep income flowing, difficulties in this area can be problematic. Masking autistic features to pass as neurotypical is exhausting, leads to mental illness, and can be unsuccessful.

There are many autistic professional people in other professions. I know autistic doctors, lawyers, and engineers, but due to the stigma attached to this condition there are very few who are open about their diagnosis. While some types of neurodiversity (such as dyslexia) are acceptable to society, an admission by a professional person that they are autistic can undermine confidence in their competence and seriously affect their career prospects. My own experience is mostly of acceptance, but more-than-occasionally of rejection and open abuse, with some people still believing that autistic people are not quite human.

Campaigns to raise awareness of mental illness have done a great deal to break taboos around this subject. Unfortunately acceptance of autism has some way to catch up, and being open about a diagnosis is not an option for many people, who need to keep up an act of neurotypicality to protect their livelihoods.

Are you autistic?

For an official diagnosis, in the UK, a GP can make a referral to a specialist, or an individual  might self-refer to a private diagnostic service. The benefit of a diagnosis (even self-diagnosis) is that it can give an understanding of a lifetime of difficulties, give insight into how to move forward with appropriate self-care, and avoid a person being misdiagnosed with a mental illness which they do not have.

While not intended for DIY diagnosis, one tool which is used with adults is the The Ritvo Autism Asperger Diagnostic Scale-Revised (RAADS-R) – there are 80 questions at the end of this link. This test is particularly interesting because the study group produced no false positive results. The threshold for diagnosis is 65. The maximum score possible is 240.

Since publication of this test, Asperger’s Syndrome (which was a class group in the study) is being phased out as a diagnosis, and is no longer considered to be separate from autism in the diagnostic manuals DSM-5 & ICD-11.

No, we’re not all a little bit autistic

People are either autistic or not. The Autistic Spectrum is an array of characteristics which vary between individuals, and not a line that goes from ‘not autistic’ to ‘very autistic’.

The following definition of autism (which avoids negative and pathologising language) is generously provided by Nick Walker and can be found here 

“Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant. The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable.

Autism is a developmental phenomenon, meaning that it begins in utero and has a pervasive influence on development, on multiple levels, throughout the lifespan. Autism produces distinctive, atypical ways of thinking, moving, interaction, and sensory and cognitive processing. One analogy that has often been made is that autistic individuals have a different neurological “operating system” than non-autistic individuals.

According to current estimates, somewhere between one percent and two percent of the world’s population is autistic. While the number of individuals diagnosed as autistic has increased continually over the past few decades, evidence suggests that this increase in diagnosis is the result of increased public and professional awareness, rather than an actual increase in the prevalence of autism.

Despite underlying neurological commonalities, autistic individuals are vastly different from one another. Some autistic individuals exhibit exceptional cognitive talents. However, in the context of a society designed around the sensory, cognitive, developmental, and social needs of non-autistic individuals, autistic individuals are almost always disabled to some degree – sometimes quite obviously, and sometimes more subtly.

The realm of social interaction is one context in which autistic individuals tend to consistently be disabled. An autistic child’s sensory experience of the world is more intense and chaotic than that of a non-autistic child, and the ongoing task of navigating and integrating that experience thus occupies more of the autistic child’s attention and energy. This means the autistic child has less attention and energy available to focus on the subtleties of social interaction. Difficulty meeting the social expectations of non-autistics often results in social rejection, which further compounds social difficulties and impedes social development. For this reason, autism has been frequently misconstrued as being essentially a set of “social and communication deficits,” by those who are unaware that the social challenges faced by autistic individuals are just by-products of the intense and chaotic nature of autistic sensory and cognitive experience.

Autism is still widely regarded as a “disorder,” but this view has been challenged in recent years by proponents of the neurodiversity model, which holds that autism and other neurocognitive variants are simply part of the natural spectrum of human biodiversity, like variations in ethnicity or sexual orientation (which have also been pathologized in the past). Ultimately, to describe autism as a disorder represents a value judgment rather than a scientific fact.”