A Gift of Wellbeing from the Autistic Paradigm

How may individuals with sensory acuity and struggling with fear and anxiety be encouraged to participate more in social activities? Dawn-joy Leong reimagines conducive spaces for all, inspired by natural Autistic ways of coping with and responding to hypersensitivity.

Sensory equilibrium and wellbeing

In 2017, I created “An Olfactory Map of Sydney,” a three-part video-monologue, for the Big Anxiety Festival in Sydney, Australia. In this multimedia work, I blend videos and soundscapes recorded during my bus trip along three different bus routes across Sydney. Interposing on this backdrop, the wryly comical commentary materialises my feelings of confusion and discomfort about the various smells I encounter along the way, from “baby puke” to pungent food smells, and how these affect me adversely.

This mélange of visual montage and humorous soliloquy was born out of a discussion with my then PhD supervisor about my autistic hypersensitivity. In this conversation, I described how, as the bus trundled along, I could identify each locality by smelling with my eyes closed. I also illustrated the effects that odours in the public sphere have on my fragile sensory system. As a result, I almost never use public transport and seldom venture beyond my own sensorially comfortable and familiar spaces because of the intense anxiety brought about by these forays.

I am a proudly autistic researcher and multidisciplinary artist, currently based in Singapore. Here, sensory processing can be exceptionally stressful. Imagine super modern and small spaces filled with incessant background music. Outside, there are screeching, honking sounds and bright lights pulsating throughout day and night. Irritable crowds of humans, always in a hurry, swarm, jostle and scurry here, there and everywhere. They surge back and forth, giving off assaultive and heady bodily odours, which are then mixed with the smell of ethnic food and polluted air. Now, try to imagine how someone with hypersensitivity struggles to cope with the sharp consciousness of every detail in this nightmare of myriad sensory dissonances cooking inside an inescapable blister of sizzling heat and damp humid air. Many autistic people also struggle with comorbids that include various autoimmune conditions. These conditions can be easily triggered by sensory stress, therefore creating vicious cycles of poor mental, emotional and physical health without remission.

How may individuals with sensory acuity who struggle with fear and anxiety be encouraged to participate more in social activity? Simply providing safe, predictable and calm spaces as conduits for self-motivated respite will significantly help alleviate stress and anxiety. It will make public spaces more accessible and inclusive not only to this marginalised community, but also beneficial to the wider population. This is where the “calm” or “quiet” room becomes a much-needed facility in today’s built environments.

What is a calm room?

Clement Space, Dawn-joy Leong, 2015. Immersive art installations. Photo: Dawn-joy Leong.

The terms “calm room” and “quiet room” are commonly interchangeable, referring to a purpose-built room for soothing anxiety and relieving sensory overload. I personally prefer “calm room” because it gives a more welcoming connotation. A calm room is already a quiet room, since calmness is associated with quietness. However, a quiet room may not necessarily be calming, as it could be filled with unexpressed trepidation and agitation. For example, the oppressive “seclusion” rooms in American schools are used to contain students exhibiting what teachers consider “errant” behaviour. Regardless of its name, a calm or quiet room should never be a place to isolate and punish noisy or misbehaving children, or mistaken for a therapy, treatment or counselling room.

In recent years, a growing number of libraries, museums and arts venues are offering calm / quiet rooms in response to increasing awareness around autistic and neurodivergent sensory needs, and mental stress and anxiety experienced by city dwellers in general. Although a most welcome development, many of these rooms are unfortunately not optimally presented. In 2019, I visited an established arts venue in London, and noticed signs directing visitors to a calm room. I followed the signs through a poorly lit corridor leading to a door with paint peeling and a lopsided sign, “Calm Room”. A sharp musty smell greeted me as I stepped into the room fitted with a dusty, worn-out carpet. The furniture was relatively new, no torn or tattered spots, but it was evident that not much specific thought was put into the design of this room. After about five minutes sitting in one of the chairs, I was startled by a loud squeaking sound, followed by a door being slammed shut. Another minute later, a toilet nearby was flushed and a short fugue of gurgling, gushing and swooshing ensued. Then, da capo of squeaking door and mandatory cadential slam! My autistic friend, who was in the room with me, looked at me with raised eyebrows, and without need for verbal communication, we both got up and left the room.

A major arts institution in Singapore recently rolled out a “quiet room” designed by a large architectural firm, featuring a fully padded enclosure with interactive items dedicated to autistic children. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Snoezelen Sensory Rooms developed in Holland in the 1970s which has become popular around the world as therapeutic sensory spaces for autistic children and persons with sensory idiosyncrasies. The excitement among the autistic, neurodivergent and disabled community, however, quickly fizzled out when people discovered that there are a few significant barriers to overcome in order to access this room, such as advanced booking or having to speak to staff to gain entry.

Commuter care room at the new Tampines North bus interchange, operated by The Land Transport Authority (LTA), Singapore. Image credit: LTA.

More recently, a newly opened bus interchange in Singapore announced the launch of “inclusive features” such as wheelchair accessible toilets, changing room, priority queue zones with seats at boarding berths and sliding doors operated by sensors that do not require physical contact. Of special note is what they called a “commuter care room”. It is designed to serve those requiring a quiet, calming space in the midst of busy commuting. The good intention behind this effort was applauded by the autistic and neurodivergent community. However, a look at the photograph of the room reveals some problems that, unfortunately, are again only evident to the autistic and disabled end-users. The walls and floor of the small room are padded, making it not only reminiscent of the padded-cell-looking seclusion rooms but also renders it inaccessible to wheelchair users. Claire, a neurodivergent parent of an autistic teenager, had this to say about this padded-cell design so popular with non-autistic, non-disabled designers: “The (autistic) sensory system is not fully understood, it is used in the context of protecting persons not understanding them” (Claire, text message to the author, 18th December 2022).

A clement space for all

Clement Space in the City, Dawn-joy Leong, 2017. Immersive art installations. Photo: Dawn-joy Leong.

How may calm / quiet rooms be truly accessible and inclusive, to benefit a wider, diverse population, instead of just a select few? The most prominent stumbling block to effective universal design is the lack of input from professionals with lived experience and / or consultation with actual end-users. Spaces for persons with disabilities should be co-led and co-designed by professionals with disabilities relevant to the project. Participatory studies and consultation are essential for compelling design. In addition, conducive spaces for respite should also be made available to all persons, and not restricted to only a small group of end-users.

The theory and practice of Clement Space – established in my PhD dissertation (2016) – is one of the approaches currently being developed by professionals across different fields of expertise who have lived-experience of sensory idiosyncrasy and disability. “Clement” is an old English word denoting a posture of forgiveness, grace and mercy. Clement Space refers to mental and physical spaces that facilitate self-initiated sensory rejuvenation for mind and body, with principles based on natural autistic self-care strategies and inspired by my (now retired) autism sensory assistance dog, Lucy Like-a-Charm. A forgiving and gentle space can be an interstice in the mind where one can practice self-calming strategies, a small “stimming” object in the pocket or handbag simply made out of an old T-shirt or soothing fabric, or a semi-permanent to permanent structure offering elements that encourage rest, relaxation and rejuvenation, all of which do not necessarily need a lot of money to create. 

Clement Space in the City, Dawn-joy Leong, 2017. Immersive art installations. Photo: Dawn-joy Leong.

A pioneering project which I helped to co-lead is the National Gallery Calm Room, which opened in 2022. A first of its kind in Singapore, it was conceived and executed under the principle of “activated inclusion”. Participants from the autistic, neurodivergent and disabled communities were invited to share their sensory experiences and needs through contact group discussions. They helped to choose the materials, features and design of the room. Everyone is welcome to use the Calm Room at any time during opening hours, without need for prior permission. Based on the fundamental practices of Clement Space, the National Gallery Calm Room room exemplifies how Clement Space can be a gift of empowerment and healing from the autistic realm not just to the autistic, neurodivergent and disabled. Emanating from the autistic paradigm and inspired by inherently autistic self-coping strategies, Clement Space is inclusive and accessible to everyone in need of rest and restoration.

About the author 

Dawn-joy Leong is an Autistic interdisciplinary artist and researcher, currently based in Singapore. Her research and artistic practice focus on autistic sensory idiosyncrasy and elemental empathic connectivity to sentience and materiality. She lives with her retired assistance dog, Lucy Like-a-Charm, her creative muse and closest companion. Together, they traverse multidimensional terrains of wonderment, flipping pages of imagination, dancing around polyrhythmic fires, humming in and out of tune, and learning new ways to embrace life and Be. Find her at www.dawnjoyleong.com or on instagram at @dawnjoyleong. 

References

Leong, Dawn-joy. (2016). Space of Mind, Scheherazade’s Sea: Autism, Parallel Embodiment and Elemental Empathy. University of New South Wales, PhD dissertation.

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