Sweetwater Spectrum

Je'Nen Chastain

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Sweetwater Spectrum is a new national model for supportive housing for adults with autism, offering life with purpose and dignity. Created to address a growing national housing crisis for adults with autism, this community for sixteen residents in Sonoma, California integrates autism spectrum-specific design, universal design, and sustainable design strategies. The design welcomes people of all abilities, promotes healthy environments, and reduces energy consumption.

In 2009, a group of families, autism professionals, and community leaders founded the nonprofit organization Sweetwater Spectrum to meet an extraordinary need—appropriate, high-quality, long-term housing for adults with autism. Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, affecting 1 in 59 children, yet few residential options exist for adults with autism. To solve this impending housing crisis, Sweetwater Spectrum created a model that could be replicated nationwide.  

The site for the first Sweetwater Spectrum community was located near the historic Sonoma Town Square in Sonoma, California. The program includes four 3,250 square foot four-bedroom homes for residents and their support staff; a 2,300 square foot community center, therapy pool and spas, and an urban farm. The new community provides a supportive environment designed to address the full range of needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorders, maximizing residents’ development and independence.

The project was informed by the latest research into the environmental requirements of this growing population. Research published by the Arizona State University Stardust Center provided evidence-based design goals and guidelines that informed the design of spaces to reduce sensory stimulation. Safety and security are paramount and healthy, durable materials are utilized throughout. The design strategies include clear and calming spatial organization, defined transitions, and opportunities for preview and retreat. The project is a PG&E Zero Net Energy Pilot Project and uses 88 percent less energy than baseline with future capacity to supply all energy onsite. Sweetwater Spectrum is currently working with several groups across the country to replicate this model in other countries.