Texas Tech University

Researcher Uses Design to Improve Life for People with Neurodiversities

Glenys Young

May 19, 2020

Kristi Gaines received a 2020 Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Research Award.

In February, the Texas Tech University System announced its 2020 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards to honor outstanding faculty members who provide exceptional opportunities for students both in and out of the classroom. We are highlighting the seven Texas Tech University faculty members who were recognized. This is the second in this series.

Kristi Gaines, an associate professor in the College of Human Sciences' Department of Design and associate dean of the Graduate School, spent 10 years as a professional interior designer before beginning her doctorate in 2003 to study how design could improve the lives of people with autism spectrum disorders. Seventeen years later, she's branched out to study the effects of design on numerous neurodiverse populations and become a national leader in the field.


Many of Gaines' collaborative endeavors emphasize the multidisciplinary approach between design, health care and education. She has worked with researchers in apparel design and manufacturing to develop specialized clothing for children with sensory disorders. She has worked with researchers in landscape architecture to develop more inviting, interactive playground spaces in an effort to combat childhood obesity. Her award-winning book, "Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders," drew on more than a decade of research to provide design recommendations for learning, work, home and therapeutic environments.

Gaines has received prestigious research awards from the American Society of Interior Designers, the International Interior Design Association, the Interior Design Educators Council and the Environmental Design Research Association, plus teaching, research and service awards at Texas Tech. Her most recent came earlier this month.

On Feb. 5, Gaines received a 2020 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research Award.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?
Through my research, I strive to accommodate diverse populations through design. Individuals with sensory sensitivities, including those with developmental disorders, are typically ignored in design yet may be more sensitive to the surrounding environment. When someone is unable to understand or adapt to their environment, negative behaviors typically follow. The lack of evidence-based research in this area motivated me to investigate ways that the built environment can be designed to positively influence comfort, behavior and learning for those who process their environment much differently than neurotypical individuals.

My research agenda includes the following areas: 1) the development of a series of design principles for inclusion; 2) the design of inclusive indoor and outdoor learning environments, including a project in Malawi, Africa; 3) functional MRI technology and augmented reality visualization (virtual environments) to map changes in neural activity of individuals with autism spectrum disorders as the environmental features are manipulated; 4) collaboration with the apparel design program to create a line of functional clothing products for children with sensory integration issues; 5) the design of intentional independent living communities for diverse populations; 6) rural design issues; and 7) the use of technology in designing for independence.

What projects are you working on at this time?
Some of my current research collaborations are summarized below:
• Designing supportive environments. Initially, the lack of empirical research in designing for inclusion in the United States led me to a researcher in the United Kingdom. Ghasson Shabha is a professor of architecture at Birmingham City University in Birmingham. We continue to work in partnership and have published three peer-reviewed papers together. Additionally, in 2013, I developed a collaborative relationship with the National Autistic Society in Wales and traveled to the UK to collect data at five intentional communities for individuals who are neuroatypical.
• Outdoor Learning Environments (OLE!). For the past three years, I have worked with Texas Tech faculty members Charles Klein in landscape architecture and Malinda Colwell in human development and family studies on the OLE! initiative. My contribution is to incorporate inclusive design into the program. Dr. Klein and I are the only designers on the statewide leadership team. The team collaborates with the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University and a similar project in Colorado, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation. Community engagement and outreach is incorporated through technical assistance and resources through partnerships with Texas state agencies, departments, organizations and child care centers.
• The Texas Tech Coalition for Natural Learning. In 2019, Dr. Klein, Dr. Colwell and I created a more formalized recognition of our ongoing multidisciplinary efforts. The mission of the Coalition for Natural Learning is to promote learning environments through research, teaching, implementation, collaboration and feedback as a means toward healthier physical and emotional lifestyles. The Texas Tech Coalition for Natural Learning aims to be an all-encompassing, umbrella-like structure from which the team and other collaborators can work toward a common goal. Our website, administered by the College of Human Sciences, provides access to information and resources for many of our collaborative projects including inclusive design; OLE!; a multidisciplinary project with a child development center in Malawi, Africa; and work promoting socio-emotional development in children.

What areas are you interested in for future research?
I am pleased to have played a role in bringing awareness to the importance of designing for individuals who may be more sensitive to environmental features. My research shows that everyone benefits when we design for inclusion. I plan to continue to build on this foundation through work with multidisciplinary teams through the Texas Tech Coalition for Natural Learning and other collaborations. I will continue developing partnerships between design disciplines, human development and family studies, neuroscience and nutritional sciences, among other disciplines. The connections I have developed nationally and internationally provide an abundance of opportunities to advance research through behavior mapping, design development and implementation, community service presentations across the nation and internationally, assessment of learning outcomes with the manipulation of the environment and so much more.

What rewards do you get from teaching?
The overall goal of my multidisciplinary research is to design for people of different abilities (instead of disabilities), creating equitable spaces. I integrate this approach into my teaching and service at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. My students learn that many individuals with sensory sensitivities and developmental disorders are creative thinkers and that creating spaces conducive to their needs can contribute to their quality of life. Students in my classes have contributed to this body of knowledge by participating in service-learning projects, winning design competitions and completing master's and doctoral work involving this subject matter.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?
Initially, I was motivated by a desire to teach and work with students. As I progressed through my graduate studies, I became interested in the idea of making an impact in the lives of a broader audience through research.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?
Texas Tech and the College of Human Sciences have provided many opportunities, programs and resources that allow faculty to succeed. A few of these include internal grant opportunities, training such as the President's Leadership Institute and programs and workshops through the Teaching, Learning & Professional Development Center. Texas Tech also has remarkable faculty and experts who have helped me advance in both research and teaching.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?
I've had a number of mentors who have had an impact on my career in different ways, so it's impossible to name one. Here are some of them:
• Sherry Sancibrian at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) is an expert in autism and developmental disabilities. My interactions with her led me to look at ways that design impacts behavior. Interestingly, she is a recipient of a Chancellor's Council Teaching Award this year from TTUHSC.
Zane Curry, professor emeritus in the Department of Design, encouraged me to seek a doctorate and career as a faculty member. He was instrumental in my design education and advocated on my behalf.
Linda Hoover, former dean of Human Sciences, and Mark Sheridan, dean of the Graduate School, have provided support, encouragement, opportunities and training in the development and advancement of my career.
• I am grateful to work with my research collaborators Malinda Colwell and Charles Klein. They are experts in their fields and truly collaborative in nature. Together, we are able to achieve more than we could accomplish individually.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
This award is an incredible honor that was made possible thanks to an amazing team of mentors, advocates and collaborators.