Architecture shapes way special-needs pupils learn

Construction of a school for autistic children in Bani Yas is to be completed next year.

An artist's rendering of the Abu Dhabi Autism Centre, due for completion next year.
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ABU DHABI // Dozens of autistic schoolchildren in Baniyas will soon have more space and better facilities in a building designed specifically for them.

The Abu Dhabi Autism Centre, to be completed next year, will have soothing lighting, simple rooms and an uncomplicated layout to help the children stay calm and focused, said the British architect Simon Humphreys.

"When you approach a building for autism you really start from the point of restraint," said Mr Humphreys.

"It's very easy to put in too many things, too much colour, too much stimulation."

He learnt about the developmental disorder through his late brother, who was autistic.

People with autistic disorders often struggle to communicate and many have difficulty in social situations.

Some are prone to outbursts when they are "over-stimulated".

"I did notice certain things living with him at home that affected him, such as noise, such as disorder - wanting a particular order in his life," Mr Humphrey said. "I actually designed a home for him in the countryside."

He has devoted much of his career to such architecture, designing several schools in the United Kingdom, a vocational centre in the Channel Islands and a performing arts centre in New York.

The Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs approached Mr Humphreys several years ago about the autism centre in Abu Dhabi, a government-run programme. In 2009, they chose him to design the centre in Al Muroor.

He worked closely with the centre's director, Aysha Al Mansouri.

"He visited us here in the Abu Dhabi Autism Centre, and he looked at the classes and saw what kinds of problems we have - small classrooms and the bathroom is far away from the classes," Ms Al Mansouri said. "The gym here is too small and we don't have a swimming pool."

The centre is to have 20 classrooms, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a theatre, dining rooms and therapeutic consultation rooms - with more than 15,000 square metres spread over three storeys.

The centre operates in Baniyas for now, serving more than 30 Emirati children aged between six and 16.

"The building they're currently at is part of the main rehabilitation centre in Al Mafraq Hospital, so it wasn't really designed for autism," Mr Humphreys said.

"And there's too much complexity there. There are too many things going on."

The centre is also too small, Ms Al Mansouri said. The school will serve more students when it moves.

In the new building, Mr Humphreys used simple, local materials whenever possible and limited the ornamentation or detailing.

"Children with autism can become quite obsessed with details," he said.

Ms Al Mansouri said: "Everything should be clear [for the pupil]: his schedule, his table, his chair. He has to understand this is his personal space and this is for the group."

Each classroom will have its own bathroom, "so you can teach the students to use the bathroom, how to be independent", she said.

Mr Humphreys designed windows and lighting "to reduce the sharp shadows" and create a soothing effect.

A special shade, etched with designs inspired by Arabic calligraphy, will surround the building to keep out the sun.

The centre plans to hold workshops with the children and an artist to create the design for the shade.

"That will be exciting because it empowers the children and the teachers to have them sort of included in the process of the design, and it gives them a little bit of ownership," Mr Humphreys said.