Special Needs accommodation for Scoil Chríost Rí, Boys National School, Caherdavin, Limerick.
Integrating Special Needs facilities in Mainstream Schools.
Until recent years, parents of children with special needs and autism spectrum disorder could only choose between sending their child to a special school or sending them to mainstream school. Studies have shown that parents prefer that their children attend mainstream schools, in particular for their social development, as children learn from other children and all children benefit from the opportunity to understand that not everyone is the same. Providing special needs facilities within the mainstream setting gives parents the opportunity to send their children to the local school with their siblings, neighbours and/or friends. With early years support, children have a greater chance of fully integrating into mainstream classes as they progress through the primary school system.
In 2016 this boys national school was granted funding for a full suite of special needs (Autism Spectrum Disorder) accommodation. The original school was split level, with a junior school and senior school linked only by the General Purpose Room (GP) internally, resulting in pupils circulating externally when the GP room was occupied.
The grant of additional special needs accommodation, presented an opportunity to totally integrate all areas of the school. Designed in close collaboration with the principal and teachers, the new space provides a two classroom Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) suite with a central activities space and a sensory garden, a new entrance courtyard and a new atrium space for whole school circulation.
Inclusion, compassion and flexibility
The new accommodation facilitates the school and teaching staff to provide pupils with necessary educational and social supports when starting school. By including these facilities within the mainstream school setting, children will develop social skills through participation in educational and social activities with their peers, with a view to moving to mainstream classes as they progress through their school years.
A new partially covered entrance courtyard, allows all pupils to gather and socialise on arrival at school. All pupils enter the school together, gather in the atrium and filter through to the three areas. Children with special needs develop self esteem and social skills through interaction with their peers in informal, social settings. For days where a pupil might not feel able to enter or leave along with everyone else, they may choose to directly access the ASD classrooms from the entrance courtyard.
Enhancing opportunity for social inclusion
The special needs accommodation includes classrooms, multi-sensory and para-educational spaces, which are designed around a central activities space. This allowed us to eliminate corridors, which can cause stress to pupils with ASD. The central activities space is open sided and sunken by three steps so that circulation can move around the space, rather than transverse it.
Central to the design objective was that this space should have a multi-purpose function for the whole school and the wider community. The space is top lit and opens to the sensory garden. Directly connected to the main entrance hall, this space is used by all pupils in the school, a place to escape, chat, sit, tell a story or sing a song. It is used by the school community for choir practice, recitals or plays, further enhancing the opportunity for social inclusion of children with special needs. The wider community have also been welcomed to the new space for informal school events such as grandparents day and guardian workshops. Throughout the new spaces, the design facilitates opportunities for incidental social interaction between children of all ages and abilities, with seating incorporated into the entrance hall, the central activities space and outdoors in the entrance courtyard and the sensory garden.
Colour, materials and finishes
The use of colour, materials and finishes were carefully considered following research into autism and colour, where it was found that tones of blue, green, orange and mauves are relaxing, while stronger tones of grey, yellow, black and red can cause anxiety. The flooring patterns in the atrium and central activities space create a sense of playfulness and enclosure without boundaries, where informal learning and group work can take place.
Oak paneling, joinery and the birch ply ceiling with the structure expressed gives the space a more congenial feel and moves the architecture away from a clinical, institutional atmosphere, which can cause anxiety in children with ASD. The classrooms present themselves to the sensory garden, with bi-fold doors and canopies to encourage the rooms to be opened up for outdoor learning. The sensory garden folds out of the sloping bank extending the colour palette with soft pinks, orange and aubergine, forming a back drop to the greens, blues and mauves of the planting.
Streetscape, with curved brick wall leading to entrance courtyard
Donal Murphy Photography