Children with autism have a range of particular needs when it comes to the ideal learning environment, and these are unlikely to be provided for by standard classroom design. The Government’s current drive to bring school provision for children with autism into mainstream schooling raises questions over whether the environments they are expected to be taught in will be appropriate.
Having been involved in several design and construction contracts to create classrooms for autistic children in mainstream schools we have become specialists in the area. In our experience using existing classrooms has created difficulties for both students due to the everyday challenges posed by autism.
Unfortunately in many schools second grade portable buildings long past their use by date have been allocated to provision for an intake of autistic children, and in some cases children and staff have even had to use unused spaces like old lobby areas and cupboards. The drive to allow children with autism to grow and develop within a ‘normal’ school environment is to be applauded however it needs to be accompanied by a commitment to providing spaces which are worthy of the commitment being made to their education.
We have found when designing for autistic children there is a need to assess the level of severity before jumping to a conclusion that the rooms need to be of a highly secure nature. Children being bought into a normal school environment are expected to take part in general school activities at different stages of the day so it’s important to design to a level that’s robust enough without going over the top.
The brief we have applied to all buildings we have worked on is to secure a user-friendly design and deliver the finished project for a standard school construction budget. Working within a moderate budget does not mean the design needs to be compromised, but it does need to be thought through.
We have identified eight key areas to consider when aiming to create learning spaces which support autistic children as follows:
Flexible space: teaching tends to take place either in small groups or on a one-to-one basis so sub-dividing rooms using partitions allow staff to create areas depending on the requirements of the pupils needing to use them at that time. It is better to choose movable furniture so the layout can be readily changed, as opposed to the restricted all-facing-front design of a standard classroom space.
Break out spaces: these are critical for diffusing challenging situations with pupils; staff are able to see when a child is starting to become difficult or is finding a situation uncomfortable, and being able to move that child into a nearby non-intimidating space that is not intimidating can reduce the chance of confrontation and other children getting involved. Also a quiet area or room can work both for the children and staff - many schools pay close attention to children’s needs at the expense of staff who are often under stress and sometimes need a space to regain composure or just relax for five minutes.
The inclusion of a teaching kitchen and an exercise area would complete the ideal range of spaces.
Wider corridors: an element that has become central to our designs is opening corridor areas up into larger spaces for uses beyond just access to include desk space or for a small group meeting area. This more open layout has the benefit of giving students a clear sight-line to classrooms which makes them feel more comfortable and less intimidated, providing a lighter feel to what is typically a building’s central core of a building. This can be further enhanced by substituting curves for right angled corners.
Providing a focal point: entrance areas are key as a focal point for the children; a good reception space is essential to allow them time to settle down and feel reassured before the day begins. It also provides parents with a dropping in point and an opportunity for an informal chat with a staff member if required. With a slight expansion on a standard design, entrances can be transformed from spaces to get through to important and useful spaces for autistic pupils.
Natural light: Most teachers will agree that natural light is essential, but a general rule with autistic children is that windows offering too much visual stimulation are a problematic distraction. Providing the views are fairly non-descript however there is no major issue with normal level windows especially if room layouts can be adapted to focus easily distracted children away from walls with windows. High level windows and rooflights go a long way to helping to achieve good natural light levels if there is an issue with the external areas in terms of normal level windows. We have found that creating high ceilings in particular sloping to the shape of the roof plus rooflights enables natural light to work well throughout the space and gives a fresh feel to the environment.
Key to all areas is the need for a high level of acoustic performance; classrooms need to have good sound absorption and reverberation. We have worked with acoustic ceilings specialist Ecophon to install acoustic tiles to ceilings to provide a high level of performance and walls designed to achieve the required acoustic levels for specialist teaching. Robust details for wall construction help with sound and impact.
To create a calming influence within the building the colour palette for internal finishes is one of the most critical areas that need to be addressed. After experimenting with various colour schemes we have settled on a combination of pastel colours and a feature wall with a bolder contrasting colour. Although still subtle this contrast can help to highlight the layout of the building for pupils. There has been much research into beneficial colours of finish for autistic children but we have a general policy to look for colours that are non-intimidating yet interesting enough to give the spaces character.
Enlivening Exteriors: if planning is in agreement, greater definition of the exterior external appearance of a classroom or area of a school can not only add character but can also help students focus on where they need to go when starting the school day, which can be of major benefit. We have found by using various external treatments such as timber, render and composite coloured panels, entrances can be brought to life and give students a positive entry point to the building, reducing confusion especially when arriving with all of the other school pupils each morning.
Bearing all of these success factors in mind, one question stands out. If we take on board the points mentioned as being a way to achieve a better teaching space for autistic children and we accept that construction costs must stay within standard school budgets then why are more class spaces not being built along these lines? What is good for teaching children who see the world slightly differently must be at least as good for everyone else, and if we accept this then there would be no need for ‘specialist classrooms’ they would all just be ‘classrooms.’
By Martin Peat, Director, Richardson & Peat