a collage of a space designed for those with autism

Emma Weaver Designs for (and with) Empathy

This member of the 2023 Metropolis Future100 says her mission is to tell people’s stories through the interiors they inhabit.

Kent State University undergraduate Emma Weaver once envisioned a future in architecture rather than interior design. “I loved math and art, and I wanted a career where I could creatively use both,” she says. What inspired Weaver to switch majors was the appeal of a more immediate connection. “I liked how interior design is human-centered and how many opportunities there are to better people’s lives by making interiors more intentional and purposeful.” This drive has since become a passion: “Now my main purpose is to tell people’s stories through the interiors they inhabit.” 

A Design for Neurodivergence that “Unstructures” the Environment

That concept is apparent in her proposal for the Center for Applied Drama and Autism, created with fellow student Kara Mayor last fall. At this after-school program in Akron, Ohio, autistic students learn coping skills through theater techniques and applied drama in surroundings designed with sensory sensitivities in mind. Considering the students’ sensory needs, Weaver and Mayor began the project with extensive research into design for neurodivergence. Inspired by a quote from Naoki Higashida’s 2007 book The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a 13-Year-Old Boy with Autism (“In nature, we receive a sort of permission to be alive in this world…”), the pair decided to “unstructure” the space and mimic the flow of nature—“although we discovered that ‘unstructured’ is really just a highly organized structure,” jokes Weaver. The pair focused on crafting the space to empower students and meet their social and sensory needs. This paradoxical approach to designing for neurodiversity was a unique opportunity to show ways that good design can neutralize the negative effects of societal pressures on neurodiverse students. 

a collage of a space designed for those with autism
In this proposal (designed in collaboration with Kara Mayor), Weaver paid special attention to how acoustics, soothing color palettes, and furniture affect people with sensory sensitivities. COURTESY EMMA WEAVER

Designing for neurodiversity changed Weaver’s mindset. “During space planning and programming, it was important to consider the different wayfinding techniques, sensory spatial sequencing, and smooth thresholds between spaces,” she says. Weaver elaborates that although individuals will ultimately have different design preferences, mindfulness will help folks on the spectrum thrive and “feel more comfortable and included.” 

People strolling around an outdoor walkway with shops.
Located in historic Florence, Italy, the Le Murate complex is a site full of culture and experience. Once a prison, now is a center for the arts and a series of apartments.

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