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Keywords:

  • architecture;
  • autism;
  • classroom design;
  • school environment;
  • special educational needs

Architects and designers have a responsibility to provide an inclusive built environment. However, for those with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the built environment can be a frightening and confusing place, difficult to negotiate and tolerate. The challenge of integrating more fully into society is denied by an alienating built environment. For ASD pupils in a poorly designed school, their environment can distance them from learning. Instead, if more at ease in their surroundings, in an ASD-friendly environment, the ASD pupil stands a greater chance of doing better. However, a difficulty exists in that most architects are not knowledgeable in designing for those with ASD. Any available design guidelines for architects tend, because of the inherent difficulties associated with a spectrum, to be general in their information. Therefore, in order to provide an ASD-friendly learning environment, there is a need to ensure that teachers, as the experts, can most clearly and effectively impart their knowledge and requirements to architects. This article, written by Keith McAllister and Barry Maguire, both from Queen's University Belfast, sets out the challenges and difficulties inherent in the design process when designing for those with ASD. It then sets out an alternative strategy to the usual method of drawing-centric dialogue between teacher and architect by using models instead as a basis for a more common language. An ASD Classroom Design Kit was designed and developed by architecture students at Queen's University Belfast. It was then used by ASD teaching staff from the Southern Education and Library Board in Northern Ireland as a case study to trial its effectiveness. This article outlines how the study was carried out before concluding with reflections by both teaching staff and architect on using the ASD Classroom Design Kit. It is hoped, firstly, that this article will highlight the need for better dialogue between expert and architect when considering ASD and the built environment and, secondly, that it may encourage others to consider using models to convey their ideas and knowledge when designing, not just for ASD, but for other special educational needs and disabilities.