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In Singapore, How To Design an Autism-Friendly World

By Joie Goh

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The stage is set up like a cube, with the top and front panels missing: three perfectly square walls, meeting at right angles, and a perfectly square floor. It isn’t perfectly cubic, however — the floor is tilted slightly higher at the far end, so that the audience seated in the stalls and arena can see that it, like the three walls, is printed with an identitical graph paper pattern and evenly dotted with LED light bulbs all over. To be precise, 892 bulbs.

In the middle of the stage floor, a life-like reproduction of a large Golden Retriever lies on its side, a garden fork speared through its middle. It is as graphic as it is realistic. Blood oozes from where it is impaled; the dog’s mouth is slack, its tongue lolling out.

This is the stark and unapologetic scene that greets the throng of theatre-goers as they fill the seats of the Esplanade Theatre to watch the much-anticipated staging of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by London’s National Theatre. No curtains, only the stage and a dead dog.

Brinkhoff MigenbergDesigned by Bunny Christie, the set is a look into the mind and life of autistic teenager Christopher Boone, played by Joshua Jenkins.
Designed by Bunny Christie, the set is a look into the mind and life of autistic teenager Christopher Boone, played by Joshua Jenkins.

The requisite announcement that the play would be starting in five minutes comes over the speakers, but other than that, the audience is given no other commentary. Five minutes pass, and the theatre goers begin to grow restless.

Then, without warning, a jarring soundtrack crashes across the auditorium at a volume many decibels above what’s considered tolerably loud. The house lights go off and strobe lights far too bright to be comfortable for the eyes begin flashing on the stage.

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I, like many of the audience members, find myself quickly clapping my hands over my ears and averting my gaze from the bright lights, and only finally relaxing into my seat when the volume tapers and the strobe lighting ceases, and the play begins proper.

The rest of “Curious Incident”, which tells the story of Christopher Boone, an autistic 15-year-old mathematical genius trying to overcome his limitations by attempting to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbour’s dog and in the process, discover a greater mystery about his own family, happens without much incident. However, at certain points, the sound and lights once again become unbearable to the senses, and coupled with the frenetic choreography of the ensemble on stage, these external stimuli paint a vivid picture of how Christopher and individuals like him with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or suffer from sensory sensitivities, perceive the chaos of the everyday world that the neurotypical mainstream society takes for granted.

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Such is the beauty of director Marianne Elliott’s stage adaptation of Simon Stephen’s play based on Mark Haddon’s 2003 book of the same name. The multiple Olivier and Tony award-winner (for best play, director, lighting, sound and set design, amongst the several cast awards) not only tells the narrative of the plot but brings the experience of being on the spectrum and suffering from sensory sensitivities to the audience, forcing the audience to appreciate the scope of Christopher’s odyssey out of his sheltered home and special school in small-town Swindon and into the pandemonium of sights, sounds and interactions in London.

“We focus on Christopher’s subjective experience and it is quite easy to follow Christopher’s lead as he describes vividly what it is like for him to not be able to filter out important information from background information,” explains Kim Pearce, the resident director for this production. “The creative team then uses all the technological elements of theatre, in sync, to create that sense of overload.”

She continues: “For example, the first time Christopher sets foot inside a train station, the signs he sees everywhere — adverts, names, and places — are projected with video moving across the set. The adverts, names and places are also spoken by actors and played back in a distorted way through the sound design. This is layered over a frenetic urban track by Adrian Sutton, which is still structured by prime numbers. The lights go yellow, a colour Christopher dislikes, and some of our 892 LEDs flash on and off, which for me, gives the impression of neurons being over stimulated. It’s pretty intense.”

Brinkhoff MigenbergLED lights (pictured above) to video projections, the experience of being Christopher is relayed unto the viewer.
LED lights (pictured above) to video projections, the experience of being Christopher is relayed unto the viewer.

Indeed, these moments of intensity were far too much for myself, a neurotypical person without sensory sensitivities — let alone for someone on the autism spectrum. It is therefore ironic that a touching and impactful play about an autistic individual to be made unavailable to others living with similar struggles, especially higher functioning ones who might find the narrative particularly resonant.

However, this was not the case for this particular run. For the first time on such a large scale, the Esplanade made the decision to stage a sensory-friendly performance on the final day of its run. Specially designed to welcome people with ASD or with sensory sensitivities, added needs or physical disabilities into the theatre, this so-called “relaxed performance” is meant to be more inclusive of those who have not been able to participate in live entertainment due to their condition.

Gone are the flashing strobe lights and jarringly loud soundtrack. Exit doors remain open to allow audience members to leave and return freely if they experience any distress during the performance, and parts of the foyer at the theatre function as quiet spaces for those who need a little time-out. However, most importantly, typical “theatre etiquette” is suspended during the performance.

“People won’t get shushed if they need to respond to the show vocally, or stopped if they need to move around or leave and re-enter,” explains Pearce.

“Many often perceive the theatre to be a space that needs to be quiet and full of ‘house rules’,” says Benson Puah, CEO of the Esplanade. “The immersive nature and theatrical effect of many performances also makes it difficult for someone with special needs and different learning abilities to experience them and to share it with others.”

Felicia Yap

With the staging of the Esplanade Theatre’s first relaxed performance, Puah also hopes that it forges greater inclusivity for everyone to enjoy the arts. “Where possible, we try to also provide a setting for people with special needs and their families to attend a performance with other audience members,” he adds. “This is something that others might take for granted as a normal activity, but what some families have never been able to do before.”

For this specific staging, the National Theatre worked with specialists who have expertise and experience in creating relaxed performances, including groups that work with people with sensory sensitivities. However, Pearce stresses that it’s vital that the narrative remains as compelling and emotionally impactful to the audience, even without the aid of clever lights and sound.

“It’s important for us that someone who feels they would prefer to experience a relaxed performance will see a show they can tolerate, but also see a show that is still exciting,” she says, listing two reasons why a relaxed performance for “Curious Incident” can still give the same experience as the original staging.

“One, there have been lots of iterations of ‘Curious’, from being played in the round in the Dorfman Theatre in London, through to this touring version by way of a version that was played in a school hall,” Pearce says. “The through-line of all these iterations, and the true heart of ‘Curious’, is the acting and storytelling style we use. It’s a show about actors interacting with technology, not just the technology. That acting and that interaction remains the same for the relaxed performance. The fact that we lower some sound levels, pull the bass back in at a few points, slow the strobe and the speed of the LEDs doesn’t change the nature of that interaction.”

The second, she continues, is that a relaxed performance is moderated, not muted completely. “It still has dramatic peaks and troughs in terms of design,” she says. “In fact, the biggest difference is that we leave the house lights up, so someone seeing the show might be more aware of their fellow audience members. I think that adds to the collective experience that makes theatre important.”

The lifting of theatre etiquette and expected behaviour, coupled with an acknowledged acceptance of the needs of the neuro-atypical audience member, Pearce surmises, is a way of approaching theatre that could possibly be translated outside the notion of staging a relaxed performance. “After all,” she adds, thoughtfully, “We all live together in society outside the auditorium.”

Felicia YapOne of the several secret compartments within the set.
One of the several secret compartments within the set.

However, even the most inclusive and accommodating of settings can still fail without proper preparation by the participant. Alex Liau, an experienced autism educator and the clinical director of Nurture Pods, a learning centre focusing on early intervention for children with ASD, lauds the effort by the Esplanade, but notes that simply bringing an autistic individual to the theatre for a relaxed performance might not result in an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. 

“Autism is defined by three pillars,” says Liau as he sketches a triangle on a sheet of paper. Bespectacled and earnest, the 35-year-old, who trained in the United States and Australia, co-founded Nurture Pods with his working partner, centre director Soh Yong Hao, after several years of providing personalised early intervention therapy for autistic children. Today, Liau heads a team of nearly 20 therapists, all of whom either teach at Nurture Pods’s learning centre at Novena, engage in home-based therapies, or work as “shadow teachers” or paraprofessionals for older, higher-functioning children who wish to enrol in mainstream schools.

On each corner of the triangle, Liau writes “socialisation”, “repetitive behaviour”, and “communication”. “Children with ASD have problems with socialising and communicating,” he explains. They also engage in what Liau calls “stimming”, short for self-stimulatory behaviour, such as repeating certain words or a set of actions, which may help themselves to calm down.

As such, autistic children need to be taught structure so they do not feel unnecessarily overwhelmed. “Say you’re taking them for a play,” he says, again sketching on the paper to illustrate his words. “So first, show them short videos on YouTube examples of what a theatre and a play is like, at a low volume and then gradually increase it so they get used to it. Then, draw up a schedule for the day of the play so they know what to expect: we do this in the morning, we go to the theatre, then we watch the play, and then we get ice-cream afterwards, and finally we go home. Kids with ASD are very visual-based, and it helps to have an end goal.”

Liau goes into much further detail on how to better prep an autistic child for an event, which included creating a photographic flow chart of what to expect. It’s very much like the downloadable pre-visit guides that the Esplanade is offering as part of its sensory-friendly 

“PLAYtime!” performances, meant for younger children with ASD: written and visual stories with photographs of the characters, costumes, sets and song clips so the actual performance does not overwhelm or surprise them.

“But even if you take them to a sensory-friendly event, where the light is dim and the sounds are soft, eventually, you’ll need to prepare them for more,” he says by way of conclusion. “Even if that outing was a success, that’s not the real world. We still need to generalise them to the experience of the real world. The relaxed performance is good as first step, but as much as possible, we would like our kids with autism be able to participate in mainstream society.”

As such, Liau had designed Nurture Pods to mirror his teaching philosophy of structure. Spartan and utilitarian, the learning centre is compact but effective. The playroom for younger and lower-functioning children is compartmentalised with panels to visually demarcate zones for eating, playing and independent work. A brightly coloured chart hangs on the back of the door. It’s made of coloured cardboard and Velcro, with individual headshots of the school’s children and a series of labelled and laminated Polaroids depicting tasks to be assigned to each child as and when needed.

The other, larger playroom has no panels to separate the three areas. Meant to prepare higher-functioning children for mainstream schools, it teaches them how to navigate a typical classroom. “The three areas are clear to us, but to an autistic child, it’s quite challenging,” Liau explains.

While it’s possible to design a space to be as conducive as possible for an autistic person, with extremely clear zone markings and visual instructions, and programme all lights and sounds to be as soothing and non-aggravating for one with added sensory sensitivities, Liau believes that it would be counter-productive. “Our aim,” he repeated emphatically, “is to build up the child so that they can join the rest of society as much as possible. This early intervention programme, as well as our school shadow programme, are tools to gradually expose them and get them used to the rules of the mainstream world.”

Autism Resource Centre Lush green features and wide open spaces within Pathlight School.
Lush green features and wide open spaces within Pathlight School.

Perhaps straddling the line between a special education institution and a regular one is Pathlight School, the country’s first autism-focused school that offers a mainstream academic curriculum alongside life skills. Students from ages 7 to 18 are taught the same subjects and take the same standardised examinations as their neurotypical peers, but the classes are structured smaller and all teaching staff are trained to deal with autism.

“As an advocate for people with autism, our end in mind is to prepare them so that they can have access to a good quality of life,” says Stephenie Khoo, the deputy executive director of the Autism Resource Centre, which founded Pathlight School. “This requires everyone to learn to work together, including the individual with autism as much as they are able.”

The campus’s design also reflects Pathlight’s vision for its students. Majestic yet graceful, it was built in 2009 and was the creation of award-winning architect Mok Wei Wei, who designed the National Museum of Singapore amongst other projects. Unlike in countries like the United States, where there are architecture and design firms that specialise in ASD design, there is currently no equivalent in Singapore. In order to balance aesthetics with functionality, the only option is to rely on the expertise of autism-trained specialists and occupational therapists to advise the architects.

Design features of the school that contribute to creating a conducive learning and living environment for its autistic inhabitants include a calming, autism-friendly colour scheme of elegant, sedate neutrals, as well as a clear and uncomplicated layout with wide corridor spaces. The latter element is especially vital, since wayfinding can be challenging for them due to their neural complexities.

“One of the considerations when we set up spaces within the school is always about maintaining a ‘sensory-neutral’ environment as much as possible,” explains Khoo. “This could be reflected in the use of colours, textures, lighting and even having a different school bell. Having a sensory-neutral environments, together with the use of physical structures to reduce distractions, can therefore help to support students with autism to function more effectively.”

Thought is also put into other, smaller details. Tap fittings in the school’s cafeteria are deliberately made to be individually unique, in order to encourage students to adopt flexibility and deal with changes that they would inevitably face in life. Furnishing and decorations are made of sound-absorbing materials, and lush greenery, like bamboo trees, create a serene environment.

Autism Resoure Centre

A scaled-down café, sponsored and donated by Starbucks and appearing in all aspects like a commercial Starbucks counter sans logo, sits close to the school's foyer. It provides work training for budding baristas amongst the students in the vocational track, and the chance to be employed by Starbucks after graduation, as well as allows the other students to learn money skills and practice the kinds of social interactions one might find at a commercial food and beverage outlet.

“We are guided by the culture of autism in our use of space,” says Khoo. “These are designed to be meaningful spaces for our students to develop leisure and vocational skills. They often simulate common community facilities that our students are likely to encounter, like the library, gym and café to aid generalisation of skills.”

The beauty and elegance of the sprawling institution also highlights the fact that autistic individuals are deserving of a dignified space, no matter what their cognitive levels may be. “We have an analogy that we often use,” says Khoo. “Same, same, but different. Different, but not less.”

She continues: “What this means is that people with autism also have the same needs, hopes and dreams and should be provided with the same opportunities for participation in society. But we are also different in how we may need to be supported to achieve these outcomes. This does not make anyone more or lesser than." 

However, Khoo stresses that simply tolerating such differences would be counter-productive to the autistic population. “It’s important that they accept, rather than tolerate,” she says, adding, “Society needs to be more flexible in tapping into the abilities that these differences may present. Conversely, people with autism also need to learn to accept the society they live, learn and work in. They must be empowered with knowledge and skills to live meaningful lives and contribute where they can, and not just expect others to adjust to them.”

Towards the end of “Curious Incident”, Christopher details his plans to become a scientist to his paraprofessional Siobhan, and proclaims that he could “do anything”. His declaration and hopeful optimism does not appear to be shared by his usually supportive mentor, prompting the boy to repeat, as though unsure, his belief.

The moment comes to me inadvertently as I am sitting in Liau’s pastel green office within the Nurture Pods learning centre. Liau is holding an illustrated step-by- step flowchart depicting instructions on how to use a toilet, including steps like “remove pants” and “remove underwear”. He is using it as an example of visually coaching autistic children in order to build up a structured, learned habit by showing them what to expect when performing a certain task.

“However, this whole thing hinges on every part going as planned,” he suddenly says, with a wry smile. “What if one day, the toilet breaks down. Then, the child gets overwhelmed and has a meltdown and is no longer functioning for the rest of the day. We call that a bad day. What do we do?” Liau shrugs. “We just let it go and start again the next day. That’s the reality of autism.”