Designing for special needs children


The unique challenge of designing school buildings for children who have an inability to communicate, co-ordination difficulties and attention deficiency along with hyperactivity and social interaction issues has been successfully overcome by architects Leo A Daly.

The US-based New England Center for Children (NECC) has just opened the doors of its education facility for autistic young people in Abu Dhabi after being hired by the government of the emirate.

Its brief was: “To plan a school and residential facility to transform the lives of children with autism.”


Architects were faced with the issue of creating scale and dynamics which would positively help the development of a child with autism.

Their task was to create two specialised buildings on a 13,000m2 site. One would provide daytime education space for 100 students while the other would act as housing for 24 children who need a more intensive level of care and supervision.

Omaha-based Tom Philippi, vice president of Leo A Daly, led the concept design while associate Jenny Tredway, working out of the company’s Dallas office, created the interiors.

Philippi said: “We saw how children in the (up and running) Boston facility interacted within the space, which gave us a sense of how the children in Abu Dhabi would do so.

“Every time I imagined the design, I had to think of potential safety issues and choose finishes that children cannot damage or that wouldn’t damage them.

“We used the terminology ‘bullet-proof’ because the rooms have to be nearly indestructible. We put an extra layer of acrylic on windows, and enclosed televisions in acrylic cabinets.”

Tredway said: “I learned that there are very functional children and children who simply cannot interact with society—and that they needed safe, quiet spaces to escape to.

“Children respond to brighter colours more than to subdued tones. So, we used red and yellow in carrels (individual study partitions) for younger kids and blues and greens for older kids.”

The designers said that each classroom has plenty of storage space as well as an observation room so parents and staff can observe without distracting the children. And near each classroom is a breakout room for use when a child needs his or her own “time-out”.



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