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Designing for Children with Special Needs

By Virginia Chavez, Architectural Project Manager at Southern A&E

Practicing architecture is not just about drawings, aesthetic appeal, or profit. It is important that we persist on an ethical practice in which we do not discriminate in our professional activities on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation, as stated in AIA’s 2017 Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. At Southern A&E, we uphold these ethics through our designs. Our main focus is in the educational field. We are designing for children from ages three to eighteen years old. Our school design challenges are to cater to different age groups sharing spaces for learning. There are regulations to follow when designing; we follow guidelines required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and The Department of Education regulations. These regulations uphold the architectural profession to a standard that promotes accessibility for all, despite any disability a person may have. The Department of Education ensures that schools are being designed based on student’s needs in a learning environment. However, it is in our responsibility to go the extra step to promote a learning space that caters to all children beyond the basic need.

Children with disabilities inherently have different needs that are sometimes not specified by regulations. Designing for children with special needs is a challenge that we take on in order to offer a school that caters to all. There are different design strategies that promote a healthy space for children with special needs. Specifically, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder experience space differently due to their brains receiving stimuli and reacting to them differently than a neurotypical child. Children with autism can be hypersensitive to stimuli caused by light, smells, textures, materials, and routines. It is not uncommon for other disorders to have the same symptoms of hypersensitivity to these stimuli mentioned.

When designing a classroom for children with disabilities such as Autism, the space organization, color, lights, and materials used are important to consider. It is important to keep in mind that a child with a disability does not learn the same way a neurotypical child does. They may or may not have impaired motor skills, less developed social skills, impaired cognitive development, or attention challenges. It is important to design spaces that are visually and physically defined to encourage the understanding of routine, discipline, and boundaries. Encouraging routine can simply be done by having specific activities or subjects taught in certain areas of the classroom. This helps children develop a daily routine, have an understanding of discipline, and a boundary of what is being learned in that space. Some children have trouble understanding what personal space is. When a physical boundary is taught within the classroom, then it will be easier to explain personal space by relating two different situations with the same explanation. Delineating spaces also allows tranquil or break spaces for children that need to be calmed down at any given time of the day.

Sensory overstimulation can be addressed in many ways, one of the most important is lighting. Natural lighting is the best option for any space. Studies show that natural lighting promotes improvements in cognitive development. It helps balance moods and sleep patterns among many more benefits. Artificial lighting, such as fluorescent, causes flickering that can strain and cause discomfort in the eye. In some cases, natural lighting is limited due to site conditions. In a case where natural lighting isn’t attainable, technology has advanced in order to help us advocate healthier lighting, such as LED lighting. LED lighting offers a solution to traditional fluorescent lighting. LED can be dimmed, and change colors from warm to cooler tones. These options make a difference in a child with hypersensitivity to lighting. A classroom can be customized with a push of a button for a more comfortable learning experience. The cooler tone lighting should be used when taking an exam or performing activities that require focus; while the warmer lighting can be used when students are taking a break, reading, or being creative.

The colors used within a classroom can also cause a negative or positive effect on the environment. The best colors to use for children with special needs are muted, cooler colors, rather than bright warm colors. Yellows can cause strain in the eyes due to its brightness. Reds can cause hyperactivity in a child. Greens and blues are the best options in a classroom. Blue is calming. Green has the same effect, but with a more inviting, warm feel to it. This does not mean warm bright colors can’t be used. If used, the bright warm colors such as red, orange, pink, and yellow should be used as accent colors that do not overbear the space.

As mentioned, children with special needs may have impaired motor skills. Materials used in a room are crucial for these children. A child that can’t walk independently and has to crawl will be the first to be directly impacted by the floors being used. A child that is sensitive to textures will have discomfort in textures used on chairs, sofas, or the floor. When designing classrooms it is important to have furniture with soft edges, sharp corners can be a safety hazard for children. The soft curved lines can create a space with a more natural and less rigid flow. Floor rugs and pillows in the classroom makes the space less institutional, creates a comfortable, inviting space similar to home for children. Creating comfort for children with special needs is essential in the learning process. Today’s market offers many different options for materials. There are also natural alternatives that eliminate toxins released in the air from materials. Many times, children with disabilities may also have food sensitivities. What is often overlooked is that these sensitivities carry on in the type of paint and floors used as well. Cork flooring has become a popular material used for children. The floor is natural, easy on the joints and reduces noise. Noise is another important factor to consider in the design process. Loud noises will hinder a child’s comfort and can even cause headaches or pain depending on their sensitivity levels. Having acoustical wall panels and soft materials will allow noise to be absorbed in the classroom.

Comfort, safety, and enjoyable spaces are attainable. Designing for children with special needs should be a priority. These children will benefit from the space and enjoy learning. Designing accomodating spaces for them is a small, but major benefit in their development as individuals. It is important to lay a positive foundation in the early stages of their lives in order to help them grow and attain their goals for the future.