No one really knows why it's happening, but the incidence of autism is skyrocketing. In the 1970s, it was estimated that autism affected only about 1 in 10,000 children in the United States; today, 4 to 6 out of every 1,000 children are being diagnosed with autism or one of several related disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). That means that about 1.5 million Americans — most of them children — are considered autistic or similarly disabled. The number is expected to surpass 4 million within the next decade.
The alarming jump in the number of children with autism-spectrum disorders presents educators with bewildering challenges. It's extremely difficult and expensive to educate those who have them. The symptoms can vary remarkably from child to child; educational and treatment programs must be highly individualized.
Also, because “social deficits” — difficulty communicating or interacting with others — are among the most pronounced and intractable of autism's symptoms, most autistic students cannot be mainstreamed easily into traditional public schools.
The social deficits associated with autism also mean that educating autistic children relies, especially in the early stages, on intensive, one-on-one work aimed at establishing a trusting bond between student and teacher. Depending on the educational technique, a teacher may spend 30 to 40 hours a week working with a single autistic pupil.
Thomas Parvenski, who directs the River Street School in Windsor, Conn., an autism education/treatment center operated by that state's Capital Region Education Council, compared his school's staffing demands with those of a traditional elementary school. A typical K-5 school might have 45 or 50 staff members for a student population of 800; River Street, which has a program that serves 135 autistic individuals, has about 180 staff members.
Moreover, schools for autistic children must incorporate diagnostic, medical/therapeutic and social support services that are much more extensive than those in traditional public schools. Add in the fact that children with autism respond best to education that's consistent and continuous (year-round programs are best) and it becomes clear that enormous expenditures are needed.
School systems are developing a variety of strategies to deal with these challenges. In some areas, regional centers serve autistic students from several school districts. Elsewhere, public schools enter into arrangements with private institutions specializing in autism.
Unfortunately, not much literature exists on designing specialized schools for autistic children. By presenting some of the basic facility-related issues with which designers and educators must grapple when planning autism education/treatment centers, this article can help fill that gap. Architectural design is secondary when it comes to educating and treating autistic youngsters; it cannot offset the need for well-trained, experienced teachers.
The specifics of design may differ depending on the particular approach to educating autistic individuals employed at a given school. (There are about a half-dozen widely accepted approaches.) The basic guidelines outlined below are generally applicable, though autism educators diverge on a few of these issues.