Sweetwater Spectrum is a Sonoma, CA-based non-profit founded in 2009 by a group of families, autism professionals and civic leaders to create a new type of residential community for adults with autism. Their goal was to leverage and optimize the insights and knowledge gained through autism research and to incorporate best practices in sustainable and universal design in a new housing model. Sweetwater Spectrum’s mission is “to provide adults with autism innovative, community-based, long-term housing that offers individuals choice and challenges each resident to reach his or her highest potential”.

After a site was selected near the historic town square in Sonoma, Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects began the design process with intensive research, interviews with families and caregivers, and visits to existing residential models. The design team also integrated the research from the Arizona State University Stardust Center and School of Architecture which provides evidence-based design goals and guidelines for the design and development of housing for adults with autism. The final report, Advancing Full Spectrum Housing: Designing for Adults with Autism Syndrome Disorders, helped guide the design. A companion report produced by the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and Urban Land Institute Arizona entitled Opening Doors: A Discussion of Residential Options for Adults Living with Autism was also used in preparing the final design.

The research exposed the challenges in designing environments for individuals with autism. Since autism is a spectrum condition, no single individual is the same as another. The variations in sensitivity to environmental factors were of particular importance to the project team. While some adults with autism are hypersensitive to visual/audible/olfactory stimuli and tend to avoid input, other adults are hyposensitive – that is, they seek an extreme of those types of stimuli.