Designing accessible, safe, and enjoyable spaces for autistic adults who are precariously housed or homeless

What do accessible, safe, and enjoyable accommodation provision in the homelessness/supported housing sector look like for autistic people? How can artistic visualization and participatory methods help uncover the needs of precariously housed autistic people?

Emerging research suggests autism is disproportionately overrepresented in homeless populations (Churchard et al. 2018). Autistic narratives of homelessness (Stone 2019) have highlighted significant barriers to service access and engagement. A key concern relates to the unsuitability of accommodation provision in the homelessness sector, particularly in consideration of the sensory processing and social differences associated with autism.

Whilst homelessness accommodation provision can be temporary, research highlights how autistic people may have multiple contact points with these accommodations, as they move through cycles of episodic homelessness (with unsuitability of provision as a contributing factor). Group settings may be particularly unsuitable for autistic people due to chaotic and crowded environments. In extreme cases, unsuitable provision has been shown to lead to repeat instances of street homelessness (Stone 2019). These concerns are related to the concept of ‘backdoor accessibility’; which asserts that because accommodation is not built with the needs of marginalised groups in mind, amendments to existing provision can only go so far in addressing need (Wertans 2018).

What will the project involve? 

This project aims to create a dialogue on what accessible, safe, and enjoyable accommodation provision in the homelessness/supported housing sector looks like for autistic people.

The researchers hope to challenge normative and typical assumptions about how supported housing provision is developed and supplied. Autistic people are to be directly involved in designing what these spaces could look like, with an artist helping to develop the visualisation of these ideas.

Activity design

There will be two half-day workshops, with around five participants per workshop. The workshops will be conducted at Henrietta Street with the same participant group. Henrietta Street is a supported housing facility for autistic people in Bath who have previously experienced homelessness or precarious housing. The site manager has agreed to host and to help with facilitation of the workshops. The aim of the workshops is to co-produce a digital zine (involving artwork, soundscapes, and audio recordings) which highlights barriers in existing accommodation provision and begins to imagine what safe, accessible, and enjoyable accommodation may look like for autistic adults.

The first workshop will begin with a ‘space audit’. A space audit involves target service users walking around and physically examining an environment to identify issues specific to their accessibility/engagement needs. An artist will assist the participants in producing subjective/abstract maps of their experiences of accommodation settings and ideas for improvement using a variety of materials such as collage, drawing, photography, textiles, and mixed media (such as audio recordings).

The artist will digitise participants’ work prior to the second workshop. During the second workshop participants will work on developing the zine, adding further audio/text/photographs. After the workshop the artist will edit the zine, and the PI will add text based on their observations of the workshops. Participants are to be given a £50 voucher for taking part in each workshop. Where possible the voucher type will be of their choosing

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Beth Stone (Policy Studies, University of Bristol) is a researcher focused on the lived experience of homeless adults who identify as autistic. Her previous work has involved narrative research with autistic adults experiencing homelessness. As part of this project she conducted an extensive scoping review on cognitive impairments in homeless populations.
  • Morgan Tipping is an artist whose practice is informed by collaborating with people caught between social, economic and political constraints. She co-creates inclusive, experimental spaces and experiences that explore social relationships and challenge power imbalances. She hopes this inspires critically engaged, structurally diverse and aesthetically liberated work. Morgan Tipping’s Website.
  • Phil Cook (Henrietta Street) is the manager at the supported housing facility for autistic people in bath who have previously experienced homelessness or precarious housing, ‘Henrietta Street’. They will attend the workshops to support the participants.
  • Autism and Homelessness Working Group is a multi-disciplinary group which involves collaboration between a number of organisations based in Bristol: Golden Key/Changing Futures, Bristol Housing First, Bristol Autism Spectrum Service, and the University of Bristol. The working group aims to examine how housing and homelessness services can increase accessibility and engagement for autistic people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

What is to come?

It is acknowledged that this process will not necessarily result in changes for the participants involved. However, a robust dissemination plan aims to promote change in the way homelessness and supported housing provision is designed and adapted for autistic people.

A description of the process, elements of the zine generated from the session, and participants’ perspectives and recommendations for homelessness and supported housing design and adaptation will be written up in the following formats:

  • Journal article (target journal: Autism)
  • Public facing blog/webpage featuring the zine to be published on the University of Bristol and collaborator’s websites.

The Autism and Homelessness working group has previously run a multi-disciplinary event attempting to raise awareness of the link between homelessness and autism, and to improve practice. Findings from this workshop would be presented at a second event, aimed at housing commissioners, social care practitioners, and key stakeholders in homelessness services. The aim is to increase awareness of the link between homelessness and autism in the social care sector, and we are currently in talks with a Social Care Commissioner. There would be opportunity for participants to speak at this event, if they wanted to do so, dependent on securing additional funding.

It is hoped that learning from this process will inform the development of a similar project, working with autistic people who are currently street homeless or in emergency shelters. Additionally, findings from this process will inform the area of focus for a larger bid on improving accommodation provision for autistic people in the homelessness sector. It is envisaged that observation of co-production in the workshops will also help to develop ideas on how a larger research bid could utilise an inclusive or participatory research design.