Maximising social inclusion and life chances for Autistic people and offering long term support for families
The Pears National Centre for Autism Education was developed over several years with parent-founded charity, The TreeHouse Trust, and is the first of its kind in the UK offering not only an 80 place school, but a national training centre and administrative workspace for the Trust which aims to increase the nationwide quantity and quality of autism education provision.
The school uses the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) used prominently in the USA but unavailable in the UK in a school setting at the outset of this project in 2001.
A key aspect of the pedagogy is the very high teacher to child ratio and high concentration on systematically achieving small measurable steps.
From the outset Penoyre & Prasad believed that their role was to find an architectural equivalent of ABA and worked closely with TreeHouse Trust to prepare a strategic brief for the National Centre for Autism Education, researching the available literature on design, autism and education which was sparse and offered a great variety of conflicting guidance.
The team immersed themselves in the client organisations and stakeholder groups, running brainstorming workshops with staff, parents, administrators and trustees; visiting schools in the UK and the USA for pupils with autism to observe teaching practices and, with engineer Max Fordham, researching the effects of environmental conditions such as lighting quality and ventilation on well being.
The new building accommodates all of the charity's activities under one roof, including the training centre, a workspace for the campaigning and outreach teams and an 80 place school for 3-19 year-olds.
An individual curriculum is developed for each child using the principles of ABA. Penoyre & Prasad's carefully researched design supports these techniques in a specialist environment, which strikes the right balance between the familiar and the stimulating. Teaching spaces feature simple, flexible, repetitive spaces with small workrooms, as well as life skills environments such as kitchen, bathroom and laundry. Even back of house areas such as delivery or maintenance have been designed to accommodate opportunistic learning potential for children. The delicate balance between a life-affirming degree of sensory stimulus on the one hand, and calm on the other has remained a key issue in design.
Lighting is even, with high levels of natural light, and temperatures constant.
The building incorporates a dentist's surgery with typical equipment and furniture so that children can get used to this before they need treatment at their family dentist. Special small workrooms and quiet rooms for the children are available when they need time away from noise, light or other stimuli. The building makes flexible use of classrooms and teaching spaces so the school dining room also doubles as a drama room and the turning area for the school buses and cars will be able to be used as a cycle track for the children once vehicles have left the site.
The ABA teaching approach involves short bursts of intensive teaching followed by a break for a preferred activity. This is often physical and building design allows for immediate and easy access to the range of well-designed outdoor play areas. Micro as well as macro design contribute to the ability to match pupil need. For example bathroom areas include a range of the different types of taps, driers etc that pupils may encounter outside the school environment. Autism can result in rigid behaviours hence the ability to practice activities of daily living in familiar but subtly differing surroundings is a necessary precursor to generalising skills.
The environmentally friendly ethos underpinning the design has influenced pupil curriculum such that recycling and self sufficiency through horticultural and cooling activities are important aspects of the pupil day.
Young people with severe autism frequently have challenging behaviour and this can become more marked during adolescence. Two thirds of TreeHouse pupils are of secondary age so it is notable that the range of visitors including parents and professionals frequently comment on how calm the environment appears. Building design is undoubtedly a significant factor. Pupils are able to access quiet rooms when becoming stressed. Spacious corridors and large break out areas ensure an uncrowded, uncluttered environment. The spacious gym and music spaces provide ideal environments for expression and letting off steam.
Pupil safety is of paramount importance; many of our pupils enjoy climbing and running but have little or no understanding of danger. Design detail including electronic entry systems and height and nature of balustrading maintain pupil safety without resulting in an overly secure institutional feel.
Better community integration and an improvement in social attitudes towards autism are long term objectives. At the Pears Centre, building design has also been a positive factor towards ‘reverse integration' sessions where pupils from a local mainstream primary school join TreeHouse pupils for activities such as sports, playtime and lunch. Mainstream pupils have commented on how ‘cool' TreeHouse school is.
The ‘green' design and attractive way in which the building blends sympathetically into the local residential/woodland environment has been welcomed by the local community. The sedum roof in particular is very popular and community events such as school fairs are well attended by local residents keen to have a closer look at the building.
After years of research and development, the existence of the Pears National Centre for Autism Education has already made a significant social impact on the lives of the pupils and parents it serves, as well as the wider community of those affected by Autism, by providing a national and high-profile centre of excellence.
Since the school opened in October 2008, pupil numbers have increased from 60 to a current 87, with the building’s flexibility facilitating easy growth even though numbers exceed those originally anticipated.
The school has undergone its first Ofsted Inspection, with inspectors praising the curriculum as ‘extremely successful’ in the way it is highly individualised and focused on specific pupil need.
Before moving in to the building the physical environment was perceived as an influencing factor for staff retention. For exit interviews undertaken since the building was open no one has cited the physical environment as being a factor and staff rate the building ‘high’ on exit interview forms. The layout and space available are highly compatible with staff communication, particularly the welcoming staff room area.
Office space is shared between school and charity staff and this encourages communication and understanding of each others’ roles. For charity staff, proximity to school life is a constant and welcome reminder of the raison d’etre of TreeHouse.
The TreeHouse Trust now has a permanent purpose-built centre from which to deliver and expand its services – educate more children, support more parents, train more professionals and influence more policymakers.