An autism-friendly hospital emphasizes nature for resiliency and healing


Charleston, South Carolina has raised the bar for inclusive healthcare design with the opening of the new Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital and Pearl Tourville Women’s Pavilion. Designed by Perkins and Will in collaboration with associate architect McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, the new, 625,000-square-foot facility aims to be one of the country’s most autism-friendly hospitals with its welcoming design that emphasizes access to natural light, a warm materials palette and an abundance of greenery indoors and out. The building also prioritizes resiliency by placing all patient care areas above the designated flood elevation and integrating flood-proof panels, an absorbent native planting plan and a series of flood walls into its design. 

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Using feedback from parents with children who are on the autism spectrum, the architects crafted calming interiors that take into account the full-sensory experience — from the removal of automatic flushers and hand dryers in bathrooms to the minimization of visual clutter — as a means of avoiding potential triggers. The biophilic design also taps into the healing power of nature by creating connections between the indoors and out wherever possible. Fresh air, natural light, indoor greenery and nature-inspired artwork by local artists create a joyful indoor atmosphere.

Related: Biophilic campus provides a safe haven for children with autism

lounge area with white walls and wood accents
play area with blue plush seats and a colorful wall mural

The rich culture and history of Charleston also inspired the interior design, from the two-story main lobby with recycled cypress paneling that takes cues from historic Charleston’s Courtyard Garden to a large-scale, stained glass artwork that evokes Angel Oak, an approximately 400-year-old Southern Live Oak. Timber-lined patient bedrooms mimic local beach houses and come with simple furnishings and customizable features to encourage children to decorate their own spaces.

play room with blue chairs near wood cubbies on the wall
play room with seating for parents and large windows

The 10-story, 250-bed facility is set back from the street to make room for an “urban green space” in a nod to Charleston’s famous civic gardens. Defined by a low seat wall that can help mitigate low-level flooding events, the landscape is planted with native species for low maintenance. Outdoor terraces on the seventh and eighth floors also connect the hospital with the outdoors. 

+ Perkins and Will

Photography by James Steinkamp and Halkin Mason via Perkins and Will

wood patio with wood seats

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