Learning to Design for Autistic Children

January 21st, 2013 in Education

ESPA Architects & Planners has been involved in the design of a classroom building targeted for special needs children in Guilford County, specifically Autistic children. It has been a rewarding learning process for our entire team.

It has been a team effort from inception including representatives from the school administration, teachers within the existing Autistic program, parents whose children participate in that program and the ESPA design professionals.

Every journey begins with the first step. The first steps with this project introduced the design team to some of the challenges that face the students, their parents, their teachers and their teaching environment. Everything including visual, audio and tactile stimuli was on the table for discussion.

Guilford County Schools include a program for Autistic children for individuals from five to twenty-two years of age, many with unpredictable social and communication skills. For instance, a trip through the cafeteria line may require photos of food to assist certain children with their selections. Even though the food is visible a photo assists the child in claiming their selections and providing a small victory in their daily routine. Certain light and/or sound levels may irritate an Autistic child resulting in strong reactions that need to be monitored by the teaching professional.

With such an age range and varying levels of development, baseline milestones were developed with the help of the parents and teaching staff. Visual cues within the interior finishes have been included to assist with wayfinding from one classroom to the other. Flooring cues have been adjusted to direct students into the classroom as well as providing visual cues for lining up within the classroom. Colors are neutral, soothing and with the dual purpose of visual interest as well as subtle signals to assist in the child’s daily routine.

Generally there is one teacher and one teacher’s aide for 6-8 students. Autistic children respond best in a very structured environment where each teaching module occurs at the same time and in the same way each day. Routine is essential as they move from one teaching module to another. These modules generally remain in place within the classroom thus the need for a larger classroom footprint, usually 1,000 square feet for six students. In addition, change and adjustment for these children can be very traumatic so it takes time and patience for any change or a move to different facilities.

The Guilford County Autism Classroom Building is under construction and will be completed by August, 2013.

Related websites and resources

  1. Autism Society of America; www.autism-society.org
  2. Autism Spectrum disorders and Schools (Technical Aid Packet)
  3. Center for the Study of Autism; www.autism.org
  4. Resources in Autism Education (RAE); www.autismed.com
  5. Educating Children with Autism (2001); http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10017

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