Eliminating Distractions

Tips for designing classrooms for autistic students.

No one really knows why it's happening, but the incidence of autism is skyrocketing. In the 1970s, it was estimated that autism affected only about 1 in 10,000 children in the United States; today, 4 to 6 out of every 1,000 children are being diagnosed with autism or one of several related disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). That means that about 1.5 million Americans — most of them children — are considered autistic or similarly disabled. The number is expected to surpass 4 million within the next decade.

The alarming jump in the number of children with autism-spectrum disorders presents educators with bewildering challenges. It's extremely difficult and expensive to educate those who have them. The symptoms can vary remarkably from child to child; educational and treatment programs must be highly individualized.

Also, because “social deficits” — difficulty communicating or interacting with others — are among the most pronounced and intractable of autism's symptoms, most autistic students cannot be mainstreamed easily into traditional public schools.

The social deficits associated with autism also mean that educating autistic children relies, especially in the early stages, on intensive, one-on-one work aimed at establishing a trusting bond between student and teacher. Depending on the educational technique, a teacher may spend 30 to 40 hours a week working with a single autistic pupil.

Thomas Parvenski, who directs the River Street School in Windsor, Conn., an autism education/treatment center operated by that state's Capital Region Education Council, compared his school's staffing demands with those of a traditional elementary school. A typical K-5 school might have 45 or 50 staff members for a student population of 800; River Street, which has a program that serves 135 autistic individuals, has about 180 staff members.

Moreover, schools for autistic children must incorporate diagnostic, medical/therapeutic and social support services that are much more extensive than those in traditional public schools. Add in the fact that children with autism respond best to education that's consistent and continuous (year-round programs are best) and it becomes clear that enormous expenditures are needed.

School systems are developing a variety of strategies to deal with these challenges. In some areas, regional centers serve autistic students from several school districts. Elsewhere, public schools enter into arrangements with private institutions specializing in autism.

Unfortunately, not much literature exists on designing specialized schools for autistic children. By presenting some of the basic facility-related issues with which designers and educators must grapple when planning autism education/treatment centers, this article can help fill that gap. Architectural design is secondary when it comes to educating and treating autistic youngsters; it cannot offset the need for well-trained, experienced teachers.

The specifics of design may differ depending on the particular approach to educating autistic individuals employed at a given school. (There are about a half-dozen widely accepted approaches.) The basic guidelines outlined below are generally applicable, though autism educators diverge on a few of these issues.

Limiting stimulation

Effective design for autism education contradicts some conventional architectural wisdom. For example, it's a truism of educational-facility design that learning spaces should stimulate children. Designing schools for autistic kids turns this principle on its head. Because autism is typically marked by extreme sensitivity to sensory stimulation — sound, light, color, pattern — it is critical that schools for autistic children tightly control the amount and type of visual and aural stimulation.

This affects many design decisions: wall finishes, flooring materials, mechanical systems and the use of natural light. Many mainstream elementary schools employ a bright, diverse palette of wall colors; VCT flooring — especially in a school's corridors and public spaces — may be a lively patchwork of geometric shapes and patterns. In a school for autistic kids, those design choices would be counterproductive; they would introduce a level of complexity that many autistic children would have difficulty processing.

Color was one of the first design aspects identified as a concern by two directors of educational/treatment programs for autistic individuals — the River Street School's Tom Parvenski, and David Holmes, who heads the Eden Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Holmes says no hard data exists on color-related distractibility, but both educators concur that a muted, subdued palette — pastels, neutral beiges and browns — and plain, unpatterned finishes are sensible choices for schools for autistic children.

Controlling sensory stimulation goes hand in hand with providing a comfortable and non-threatening environment. Temple Grandin, whose books describe her own experience with autism, has written that fear — including a terror induced by the spatial disorientation that autistics experience in large, busy, unfamiliar environments — can overwhelm an autistic person. That fear can cause an autistic child to block out the outside world.

An appropriately scaled facility can help prevent this. Ceiling heights must be kept low, spatial volumes small, and learning spaces intimately proportioned, especially in the early years when most teacher-student interaction is one-on-one.

For toddlers and elementary school-age children who are autistic, the transition between home and school can be eased significantly if the educational environment has a residential scale. The Eden Institute often uses ordinary suburban homes for use in its infant and toddler programs. The bedrooms become the learning centers where one-on-one instruction takes place; bedroom closets are rebuilt as observation rooms, with doors that open into adjacent corridors; and living rooms become the locus for small-group activities.

Observation rooms are an essential component of autism education facilities because students' problems and progress must be monitored closely to ensure that educational strategies are working. Parents often watch from observation rooms so they can replicate the techniques and methods at home.

Not an institution

Educational facilities for autistic individuals of whatever age group should be non-institutional in character, Holmes emphasizes. Non-institutional settings help autistic individuals function to the best of their abilities in society.

“Institutions tend to create a set of values that are different from prevailing societal values,” he says. “If they're too separated from the outside world, staff might accept behavior — screaming, for example — that won't be accepted elsewhere.”

Because schools for autistic students often serve an age range from toddlers to people in their early 20s, the facilities should be designed so that students of different ages and developmental stages have their own areas where they can feel safe and comfortable. At the same time, a design must provide a sense of continuity and predictability throughout the facility. This eases the transition as students progress from simpler, more contained learning environments to larger and more complex spaces.

Getting specific

Designers should take these general principles and apply them to specific building systems and components:

  • Indoor air quality

    Extraordinary sensitivity to light or sound experienced by many autistic children often is accompanied by heightened sensitivity to other environmental conditions, especially airborne contaminants such as dust, mold and pollen. Parvenski notes that a majority of River Street School's students have chronic upper-respiratory problems, and poor indoor air quality can interfere with their education.

    River Street's new facility is equipped with an air-filtration and ventilation system that “is almost up to hospital standards,” he says. It makes seven complete air changes each hour.

  • Acoustics

    Mechanical systems in schools for autistic children must be designed to be as acoustically unobtrusive as possible. Studies suggest that autistic individuals have trouble processing sound. The problem isn't just noise: an autistic child who can't distinguish sounds that are important from those that aren't can become distracted all too easily by a sound coming from a fan or duct.

Controlling the acoustical environment isn't just a matter of attenuating sound from the air system. Learning spaces must be configured in ways that control sound transmission. Adjacencies between classrooms and noisy spaces (such as cafeterias or loading docks) have to be planned meticulously, and acoustical treatments introduced where necessary. The proximity of school buildings to external sources of noise, such as heavily trafficked roads, also should be considered when choosing a site for an autism treatment center.

Preventing injury

Because VCT and other hard-surface flooring reflect sound and can create or amplify a din, carpet is a better choice in schools for autistic children. Carpet can do more than just control sound. Children with autism often are prone to seizures and may engage in behaviors that can cause harm to themselves or others. Soft surfaces such as carpet can reduce the potential for injury.

However, carpeting carries some drawbacks: it can be more difficult to clean and maintain than hard-surface flooring; wet or dirty carpet can promote the growth of mold and other air contaminants; and most new carpeting “off-gases” volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can hurt indoor air quality. Parvenski recommends that schools use carpet judiciously and that designers research choices carefully before specifying carpets.

Designers of schools for autistic children have to become aware of dangers that can lurk in the details of architecture or furnishings — details that might seem inconsequential in other educational environments. The corners of whiteboard marker trays or of windowsills can present unintended hazards.

The overall softness of the environment can be increased through materials other than carpet. Rubberized flooring might be appropriate in some areas. Drywall might be preferable to masonry construction for certain walls. What is lost in durability is gained in protection against injury.

Flickers of light

Lighting also presents quandaries for designers of autism treatment centers. Fluorescent lighting flickers. It may not be discernible to most people, but the flickering can be distracting and even harmful to individuals with autism. Some autistic children can lock their gaze onto a fluorescent fixture, whose subtle flicker can initiate a seizure.

Full-spectrum lighting is preferred in an autism education facility, but non-fluorescent lighting uses considerably more energy, and an operations budget may not be able to absorb this long-term expense. Parvenski says one solution is to use only indirect fluorescent lighting so that the lamps themselves are never visible to students. At the River Street School, pendant indirect fixtures are augmented by hidden downlights at the ceiling perimeter, which softly wash the walls with light.

Designers also must be cautious when using natural light in the interiors of autism treatment centers. In most school designs, daylighting is desired. But windows with exterior views may provide autistic students with undesirable distractions. Clerestory windows and skylights may be counterproductive because shifting patterns of daylight can complicate the visual environment. These drawbacks mean that designers must carefully evaluate the locations of windows and skylights when they are used.

Clearing clutter

Storage space is another area in which the ante is upped in facilities for autistic children. A great deal of autistic youngsters' education, particularly in the early developmental stages, involves work with objects. To keep the learning environment uncluttered and free from visual distractions, learning centers and classrooms for autistics have extraordinary storage requirements. Parvenski estimates that a classroom space of 400 to 500 square feet might require an additional 100 square feet of storage space.

Storage strategies differ according to the educational approach employed at a given school, so this is one area where interior design must be responsive to those differences. Staff at the River Street School prefer closed storage, in which objects are put away securely when not in use. By contrast, the Eden Institute generally opts for open-shelf storage.

Special talents

Art and music can be vital in the education of autistic kids. Parvenski admits that a decade ago he would have discounted the importance of music. Since then he has seen the effect it has had on one autistic boy at the River Street School with a severe speech handicap who first began to communicate through singing.

Arts and music are introduced to River Street students in a gradual and systematic way, he adds, so that their potential to help individuals can be carefully gauged.

In her writings on autism, Temple Grandin — herself an engineer and a designer of livestock-handling facilities — often highlights the picture-making skills of some high-functioning autistics such as herself. She recommends that courses in drafting and computer-assisted design be offered to autistic students who demonstrate visual arts talent.

A facility for autistic students should accommodate a variety of technologies. Computers and other electronic devices, including handheld augmentative communication devices that enable those with severe speech disabilities to “talk,” typically play an important role in autism education.

An autism education also needs information systems of greater capacity and sophistication than those in most traditional schools. The vast amount of recordkeeping required to monitor students' progress and because the many professionals engaged in educating and treating students must remain in constant communication with one another.

Occupational-therapy and physical-education spaces may require additional structural reinforcement because of specialized, ceiling-hung equipment such as swings used in “adaptive physical education.” Toilet rooms in toddler and early-childhood areas may have to be oversized so that other learning activities can be pursued during time-consuming toilet-training sessions.

Despite all the good that a well-designed facility can do, it's what goes on inside the facility — especially the interaction between teachers and students — that's paramount.

Myler is director of pre-K to 12 facilities for Fletcher-Thompson, Inc., a Connecticut-based architecture/engineering firm with offices in Shelton and Hartford. Fantacone is a principal of Fletcher Thompson's Edison, N.J.-based subsidiary, RJF Fletcher Thompson, LLC; Merritt is Fletcher Thompson's director of educational planning and research.

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