“Our consultancy offers cost effective solutions to those providing environments for people living with autism.”
The Scottish Government requires of its schools that they provide a safe, pleasant and stimulating environment, well suited to supporting the curricular, social and leisure activities of pupils.
In Scottish education there is great emphasis placed on adapting the environment to promote inclusion for all. A key theme of our National Priorities in Education is the development of a Framework for Learning where the enhanced school environment is conducive to learning and teaching, (Scottish Exec 2000).
During school inspections, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) audit and review teams will look for features of the environment that maximise learning opportunities, typically:
The design of New Struan School takes account of the recommendations of the Scottish Government and then goes a step further to address the ‘value added’ components that are essential to a specialised service for pupils with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
We know from ‘first person’ accounts of people with ASD, how aspects of the environment can assault their senses and create confusion and fear.
"Auditory and tactile input often overwhelmed me. Loud noise hurt my ears. When noise and sensory stimulation became too intense, I was able to shut off my hearing and retreat into my own world.’"(Grandin, 1996)
From the earliest stages of planning New Struan, we took account of the difficulties arising from ASD, including:
Our aim was to create, for our pupils, an autism-friendly environment that was influenced by the priorities of people with ASD. Donna Williams (1996), in her book, ‘Autism: An Inside Out Approach’, describes her ideal educational environment:
‘…one where the room had very little echo or reflective light, where the lights were soft and glowing with upward rather than downward projecting light. It would be one where the physical arrangements of things in the room was cognitively orderly and didn’t alter and where everything in the room remained within routinely defined areas. It would be an environment where only what was necessary to learning was on display and there were no unnecessary decorations or potential distractions’ (Williams 1996, p.284)
Teresa Whitehurst (2006) in her recent study of the impact of building design on children with ASDs, cited architect Simon Humphreys who suggests that buildings should be based on the following simple principles:
The architect of New Struan is also the parent of a young woman with ASD. Combining his skills as an architect with his personal knowledge and understanding of ASD and consulting widely with our own staff, parents and pupils, he developed a blueprint for a unique, learning-friendly school that has at its core, the best interests of children with autism:
Many of the features described above, have been designed to lead the children smoothly and independently from the central walkway into the teaching areas. The attention to autism-friendly details continues in the bright, airy classrooms:
Each of these details offers a statement of respect of our pupils. Through this attention to detail we are acknowledging the difficulties they experience. Through the use of attractive and high quality materials we are expressing the value we place on the children and staff.
Communal areas of the school incorporate many of the features mentioned above and their purpose is immediately clear before entering. For example, the library is an open-plan space where it is immediately apparent which areas are for relaxed reading and which are for research and study. Opening up from the ‘street’, it’s curved and door-less entrance invites pupils and staff to wander in and browse the shelves or to curl up with a good book. No child has ever attempted to ‘escape’ from this tranquil area.
The food technology room has been designed to replicate a family kitchen, where pupils can learn new skills using work space and appliances similar to those in their own homes, thus facilitating the transference of skills.
The outdoor areas, with cycle track, play equipment, a ball park and sensory garden have been designed to offer pupils the opportunity to play co-operatively or independently, to exercise, to socialise or to simply relax. Pupils who choose not to play or who may want to play and socialise with others but are unsure of how to do this, can sit at picnic tables and watch. The perimeter fence is low and aesthetically pleasing. This provides the clear boundary that people with ASD appreciate without appearing to be restrictive.
Ample parking areas for staff, taxis and mini-buses ensure smooth and safe arrivals and departures to and from school.
The dining hall and Café Courtyard create further opportunities for pupils and staff to meet up with friends and colleagues from other classes. Here, as in all other areas of the school, visual structures and clear delineation offer predictability and promote independence.
The development of an appropriate learning environment for pupils with an ASD should be driven by the particular needs and strengths arising from autism. There should be evidence that the organisation and structure of the environment supports the communication, social, sensory and curricular needs of the pupils. The environment should make a clear statement of the respect and value we place on each individual and of the high expectations we have for their progress and achievements as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors (Curriculum for Excellence, 2004).
In the words of Dr Peter Vermeulen (Centre for Concrete Communication, Belgium), following a recent visit to the school:
“New Struan is an excellent example of an autism friendly school and should be considered as an outstanding model of how schools for pupils with autism should be designed. It is a brilliant source of inspiration for other schools.”
Many of the elements, described above, for an autism-friendly school, can be incorporated into existing school buildings through creative adaptations that are informed by an understanding and respect of autism.
Grandin, T. (1996), Thinking in Pictures, New York: Vintage
Irlen, H. (1991), Reading by the colours: Overcoming dyslexia and other reading disabilities through the Irlen method, New York: Avery
Scottish Executive, (2004), A Curriculum for Excellence, SOED
Whitehurst, T. (2006), The impact of building design on children with autistic spectrum disorders, Good Autism Practice, 7, 1
Williams, D. (1996) Autism: an inside-out approach, London: Jessica Kingsley
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