Massimiliano Claps
Max Claps (Research Director, IDC Government Insights)

Next week I am attending the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona. I’ve have been an attendee, exhibitor and speaker at this annual gathering for many years now, and it’s great to see that in the past couple of years there has been a growing focus on inclusion.

Gone are the days when speaking about bright and shiny new tech toys was enough. Cities are eager to understand how to become truly people centric, including for people with disabilities. On the inclusion front, one topic that I’d like to hear more about at the Expo, in 2022 and beyond, is how to make cities autism friendly.

A Global Phenomenon

According to the World Health Organization, one in every 100 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The US Center for Disease Control estimates it is one in every 44 in the US. If we consider a conservative estimate of one in every 100, then of the 4 billion people worldwide that live in urban areas, 40 million would have ASD. UN projections indicate that we’ll have 7 billion urban dwellers by 2050, meaning 70 million with ASD, assuming the prevalence of ASD does not change.

Autism is a challenging neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s a broad spectrum that includes people with cognitive, speech and motion disabilities, people with milder challenges but that still have a hard time speaking and socialising, and people with high-functioning autism (such as Asperger’s Syndrome), who can be like the genius “good doctor” in the TV series of the same name, but with the crying, screaming and lashing out when overwhelmed by stress, shiny lights, loud noise or unexpected events — stress that can be caused by hypersensitivity to noise, light, smell, touch and an inability to comprehend social interactions. Coping with ASD in a hyper stimulating environment like a city is like trying to share a file between a Mac and a PC in 1985. I know this because I have a beautiful eight-year-old son who has ASD.

Making the Urban Space and the Community Liveable

Making cities liveable for the millions of people that have ASD is a global inclusion imperative. Cities such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Glasgow in the UK; Phoenix, Mesa and Austin in the US; Prato in Italy; and tiny villages such as Clonakilty, in Ireland, are exploring how they can reimagine urban spaces and community services to become more autism friendly.

When it comes to urban spaces — both indoor, such as shops, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, museums, public transport, and outdoors, such as streets and parks — unpredictable noises, lights, smells and queues may cause sensory distress to people with autism. Adjusting ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, creating quiet spaces to recalibrate after a stressful moment, deploying visual signage that combines words with images, making available sensory guides and social stories to reduce the unexpected and making available small kits with “stim” toys can go a long way to improve liveability for people with autism.

When it comes to the community, lack of awareness about autism can lead to judgements. Autistic people talking to themselves in a library, for instance, can get unfriendly looks. As a result, people with autism and their families tend to isolate from social life.

It’s essential to educate people working in shops, restaurants, cinemas, museums, libraries, schools and healthcare facilities. Business owners need to understand how they can leverage the great skills that many autistic people can bring to the workplace, such as declarative memory.

Government institutions have a role to play to provide coordinated support across family allowance programmes, mental health services, job training and placement, and schools, without requiring people with autism and their families to explain their condition and needs at every point of interaction with the public administration.

How Technology Can Help

Technology is not a silver bullet. Cities have had enough smart techno solutionism. Autism is the least suitable area for cookie-cutter approaches because every person with autism is at a different place on the “spectrum”, with their own special characteristics and needs. But technology can help.

When it comes to urban spaces, using location-based intelligence, digital twins and other tools can help map areas of the city that are the least liveable for people with autism and plan alternative designs. Apps can be used to offer people autism-friendly sensory and navigation maps.

When it comes to the community, online training can help increase awareness. Apps can help communicate with people with autism who are not verbal.

Online services can be used to pre-book fast-tracking entry at certain facilities to avoid the stress of queueing. And public administrations across the city ecosystem should scale trusted data sharing to do a better job of coordinating public services that support people with autism and their families.

I look forward to hearing and learning more about autism-friendly cities at the Smart City Expo and beyond. My son and the tens of millions of people with autism deserve to be included.

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