Aiming to set a new precedent for inclusive healthcare design, Perkins+Will and McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture put neurodiversity high on the agenda at a new MUSC facility.

The World Health Organization estimates that one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In some countries, numbers are increasing. According to a 2020 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, the prevalence rate has nearly tripled since 2000, from 0.67 to 1.85 per cent. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who contributed to the report, write that it’s not clear ‘how much of this rise is due to better detection or an increase in “true” cases or both’. That said, the ‘why’ is irrelevant. What is significant is that designers factor neurodiversity into their buildings to make them more inclusive.

A new joint facility from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) aims do just that. Designed by Perkins+Will in collaboration with McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, the new 58,064-sq-m MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital and Pearl Tourville Women’s Pavilion in Charleston aspires to be one of the country’s most autism-friendly hospitals. The creative team didn’t just assume what design elements would fulfil this goal. Instead, they embarked on a collaborative process that included clinical and administrative leadership, Child Life, the MUSC Patient Family Advisory Council and Youth Council. The team harnessed feedback from parents with ASD children to deliver a full-sensory design response. ‘Truly listening to the challenges of families and caregivers enabled us to collaborate together to solve for the complex needs for both,’ says Carolyn BaRoss, healthcare interiors design director for Perkins+Will. ‘We drew inspiration from their honesty and aspirations.’

The team went a step further than simply creating a calming environment – they assessed and removed potential triggers that could result in an overwhelming space. The result is a highly curated interior that’s free of visual clutter. By favouring human-scale design gestures over monumental ones and carefully plotting the spatial routing, they could help visitors feel at ease. Each level features a distinct colour and specific graphics, for instance, to enhance visitors’ sense of place and assist wayfinding. Patients also have access to lighting controls to adjust their space as needed. The design of the hospital rooms is homely rather than clinical, with textures and tones derived from Charleston’s beach houses. By incorporating writable surfaces into the rooms, the designers also encourage children to decorate their own spaces.

Other sensory considerations include the removal of automatic flushers and hand dryers from the bathrooms. And, together with MUSC’s Child Life programme, which encourages emotional wellbeing in healthcare through the use of play, education and support, the design team created a sensory room for ASD patients.

Biophilia also plays an important role in the project. The lobby and waiting areas are inspired by courtyard gardens with arched openings and hedges, while a roof garden-slash-play area provides a real outdoor spot for respite. Throughout, the interior and exterior are strategically connected to allow access to fresh air and daylight – as much for the patients as for the caregivers.