Environmental accessibility for autistic individuals: Recommendations for social work practice and spaces


  • Mason Malcolm University of Canterbury




Autism Spectrum Disorder, environment, accessibility, critical disability theory, Critical Intersections model, anti-oppressive practice, social model of disability


INTRODUCTION: Research and personal stories from disability advocates have highlighted the significant impact of environmental inaccessibility on an individual’s independence and dignity. This article focuses on accessibility for autistic individuals, specifically the lack of accessibility they experience in built environments due to limited autism awareness among professionals and the public.

METHOD: Literature focusing on social work’s role with autistic individuals, autism-friendly approaches, and accessible architecture was reviewed. The social model of disability and critical disability theory were utilised to explore social work’s responsibility to develop and advocate for environmental accessibility for autistic individuals. Through this analysis and the collation of strategies from the reviewed literature, the Environmental Accessibility Infographic was developed.

IMPLICATIONS: The Environmental Accessibility Infographic has broad implications. Firstly, it can be applied to any built environment to improve accessibility for autistic people and others with sensory processing needs. Secondly, the accessibility strategies have the potential to positively impact social workers’ practice with autistic people as they can guide change that will ensure their practice is autism-friendly and anti-oppressive.

Author Biography

Mason Malcolm, University of Canterbury

Master of Social Work (Applied)


Acraman, E. (2021). Autism prevalence in New Zealand. Altogether Autism. https://www.altogetherautism.org.nz/ autism-prevalence-in-new-zealand/

Anastasiou, D., & Kauffman, J. (2013). The social model of disability: Dichotomy between impairment and disability. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 38(4), 441–459. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmp/jht026

Ashburner, J., Bennett, L., Rodger, S., & Ziviani, J. (2013). Understanding the sensory experiences of young people with autism spectrum disorder: A preliminary investigation. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 60(3), 171–180. https://doi.org/10.1111/1440-1630.12025

Bates, C., Imrie, R., & Kullman, K. (Eds.). (2016). Care and design: Bodies, buildings, cities. John Wiley & Sons.

Bevan-Brown, J. (2004). Māori perspectives of autistic spectrum disorder: Report to the Ministry of Education.

https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/ pdf_file/0011/7301/asd-maori.pdf

Bishop-Fitzpatrick, L., Dababnah, S., Baker-Ericzén, M. J., Smith, M. J., & Magaña, S. M. (2019). Autism spectrum disorder and the science of social work: A grand challenge for social work research. Social Work in Mental Health, 17(1), 73–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/153 32985.2018.1509411

Buckley, C. (2017). Making your practice autism friendly. Innovait, 10(6), 327–331. https://doi. org/10.1177/1755738017692002

Burke, S. (2017). Why design should include everyone [Video]. Ted Conferences. https://www.ted.com/ talks/sinead_burke_why_design_should_include_ everyone#t-893

Cook, J., Crane, L., Bourne, L., Hull, L., & Mandy, W. (2021). Camouflaging in an everyday social context: An interpersonal recall study. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 25(5), 1444–1456. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361321992641

Davidson, J. (2010). ‘It cuts both ways’: A relational approach to access and accommodation for autism. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 70(2), 305–312. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.10.017

Denhardt, T. (2017). Autism-aware design. Architecture Now. https://architecturenow.co.nz/articles/autism-aware- design/

Giles, R. (2016). Social workers’ perceptions of multi- disciplinary teamwork: A case study of health social workers at a major regional hospital in New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28(1), 25–33. https://doi.org/10.11157/anzswj-vol28iss1id113

Gillespie-Lynch, K., Kapp, S. K., Brooks, P. J., Pickens, J., & Schwartzman, B. (2017). Whose expertise is it? evidence for autistic adults as critical autism experts. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 438–438. https://doi. org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00438

Hall, M. C. (2019). Critical disability theory. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/ archives/win2019/entries/disability-critical

Haney, J. L., & Cullen, J. A. (2018). An exploratory investigation of social workers’ knowledge and attitudes about autism. Social Work in Mental Health, 16(2), 201–222. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332985.2017.1373 265

Harms, L., Connolly, M., & Andrews, S. (2019). Social work: From theory to practice (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Hastie, J. L., & Stephens, C. (2019). Vicarious futurity: Parents’ perspectives on locating strengths in adolescents with autism. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 31(1), 89–100. https://doi.org/10.11157/anzswj- vol31iss1id505

Hayden, C. (2021). Identity first vs person first language [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/CWFMSNgBMa0

Hazen, E. P., Stornelli, J. L., O’Rourke, J. A., Koesterer, K., & McDougle, C. J. (2014). Sensory symptoms in autism spectrum disorders. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 22(2), 112–??.

Health and Disability Commission. (2019). The code and your rights. https://www.hdc.org.nz/disability/the-code-and- your-rights/

Higgins, J. M., Arnold, S. R., Weise, J., Pellicano, E., & Trollor, J. N. (2021). Defining autistic burnout through experts by lived experience: Grounded delphi method investigating #AutisticBurnout. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 25(8), 2356–2369. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211019858

Hugo, M. (2018). Autism, accessibility and our public spaces. University of Cambridge Museum. https:// www.museums.cam.ac.uk/blog/2018/07/11/autism-accessibility-and-our-public-spaces/

Hull, L., Petrides, K. V., Allison, C., Smith, P., Baron-Cohen, S., Lai, M., & Mandy, W. (2017). “Putting on

my best normal”: Social camouflaging in adults with autism spectrum conditions. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(8), 2519–2534. https://doi. org/10.1007/s10803-017-3166-5

Human Rights Commission. (2021). Disability Rights. https:// www.hrc.co.nz/your-rights/your-rights/

Keesler, J. M. (2019). Understanding emergent social workers’ experiences and attitudes toward people with psychiatric, physical, and developmental disabilities. Journal of Social Work Education, 1–15. https://doi.org/1 0.1080/10437797.2019.1661916

Kinnaer, M., Baumers, S., & Heylighen, A. (2016). Autism-friendly architecture from the outside in and the inside out: An explorative study based on autobiographies of autistic people. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 31(2), 179–195. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s10901-015-9451-8

Maidment, J., & Egan, R. (2016). Practice skills in social work and welfare: More than just common sense (3rd ed.). Allen & Unwin.

Ministry of Health. (2016). New Zealand autism spectrum disorder: Guideline (2nd ed.). Ministry of Health. https:// www.health.govt.nz/publication/new-zealand-autism- spectrum-disorder-guideline

Mostafa, M. (2008). An architecture for autism: Concepts of design intervention for the autistic user. International Journal of Architectural Research, 2(1), 189-211.

Mostafa, M. (2015). An architecture for autism: Built environment performance in accordance to the autism ASPECTSSTM design index. Design Principles & Practices, 8(1), 55–71. https://doi.org/10.18848/1833- 1874/CGP/v08/38300

Oades, L. M. (2021). Mamae nui me te takiwātanga: Surplus suffering and autism spectrum disorder in school social work practice. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 33(1), 55–66.

Opai, K. (2017). A time and space for Takiwātanga. Altogether Autism. https://www.altogetherautism.org. nz/a-time-and-space-for-takiwatanga/

Preece, D., & Jordan, R. (2007). Social workers’ understanding of autistic spectrum disorders: An exploratory investigation. The British Journal of Social Work, 37(5), 925–936. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcl089

Ratto, A. B., Kenworthy, L., Yerys, B. E., Bascom, J., Wieckowski, A. T., White, S. W., Wallace, G. L., Pugliese, C., Schultz, R. T., Ollendick, T. H., Scarpa, A., Seese, S., Register-Brown, K., Martin, A., & Anthony, L. G. (2017). What about the girls? Sex-based differences in autistic traits and adaptive skills. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(5), 1698–1711. https:// doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3413-9

Redjohn1971. (2016, June 11). Microaggressions faced by autistic people [Blog]. The Houston Aspie Blogging Collective. https://houstonaspiecollective.wordpress. com/2016/06/11/microagressions-faced-by-autistic- people/

Robertson, C. E., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2017). Sensory perception in autism. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 18(11), 671–684. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2017.112

Rodgers, J., Herrema, R., Garland, D., Osborne, M., Cooper, R., Heslop, P., & Freeston, M. (2018). Uncertain futures: Reporting the experiences and worries of autistic adults and possible implications for social work practice. The British Journal of Social Work, 49(7), 1817-1836. https:// doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcy117

Roy, E. (2015). When we design for disability, we all benefit [Video]. Ted Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/ elise_roy_when_we_design_for_disability_we_all_ benefit#t-777424

Shell, S. (n.d.). Why buildings for autistic people are better for everyone. https://network.aia.org/ HigherLogic/System/DownloadDocumentFile. ashx?DocumentFileKey=3fff74f0-6418-8e5f-00ed- 4ebeb38eabd8&forceDialog=0

Spain, D., Mason, D., J Capp, S., Stoppelbein, L., W White, S., & Happé, F. (2021). “This may be a really good opportunity to make the world a more autism friendly place”: Professionals’ perspectives on the effects of COVID-19 on autistic individuals. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j. rasd.2021.101747

Standards New Zealand. (2001). Design for access and mobility: Buildings and associated facilities (NZS 4121). https://www.building.govt.nz/building-code-compliance/d- access/d1-access-routes/public-accommodation-access/ access-standard-nzs-41212001/

Stebbins, L. (n.d.). 5 Ways We Can Make the World More Autism Friendly [Blog]. Stages Learning. https://blog. stageslearning.com/blog/5-ways-we-can-make-the- world-more-autism-friendly

Tola, G., Talu, V., Congiu, T., Bain, P., & Lindert, J. (2021). Built environment design and people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD): A scoping review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(6). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18063203

Tupou, J., Curtis, S., Taare-Smith, D., Glasgow, A., & Waddington, H. (2021). Māori and autism:

A scoping review. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211018649

World Health Organisation. (2021). Autism spectrum disorders. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/ detail/autism-spectrum-disorders

Woods, R. (2017). Exploring how the social model of disability can be re-invigorated for autism: In response to Jonathan Levitt. Disability & Society, 32(7), 1090–1095. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2017.1328157




How to Cite

Malcolm, M. (2022). Environmental accessibility for autistic individuals: Recommendations for social work practice and spaces. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 34(3), 103–115. https://doi.org/10.11157/anzswj-vol34iss3id948



Original Articles II