top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

Special School for Children With Autism and Special Learning Disabilities

Designing is the art of creating an environment and arranging the space to suit the requirements of its users. Understanding user needs lies at the heart of evolving any design concept. Normally sound, visual, and tactile characteristics of space are used by designers to bring the essence of space to its users, also aids the purpose and activities within a space, specifically for special need users. In spite of the obvious opportunities of planning helpful engineering conditions for autistic users, autism has commonly been excluded from architectural layout codes and guidelines.

When a project came to us to do an autism school design, a school for learning disabilities, we found that very little research material was available. Although the number of people with these disabilities is on the increase, there were no standards developed for the special school designs.

We were trying to understand Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) when the project came to us. In this process of understanding Autism Specific Disorder, we were trying to find what is ideal for them or what is normal for these people so that the disturbances are minimal and they can incorporate their head, heart and hand towards learning.

Overall objective of designing a school for learning disabilities
Overall objective of designing a school for children with autism and learning disabilities


1. Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Children/adults are highly sensitive or under-sensitive to sensory experiences. The spectrum dictates the severity of the disorder, which is why it is called autism spectrum disorder.

All of these can generally result in intellectual disability, motor coordination, physical health, attentiveness or disability to converse. But as each person is different, every student may not have all of these disabilities, there can be some who have exceptional levels of intellectual ability but can have some other disability.

Common behavioural patterns in people with ASD
Common behavioural patterns in people with ASD

2. Understanding Specific Learning Disabilities(SLD)

Many times, a specific learning disability is implied to mean poor intellect. But rather it is about limited cognitive skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, reasoning, listening and speaking. It is more of a processing disorder. Due to these inabilities, sometimes these kids can be frustrated very easily and agitated at times. In terms of social behaviour, these kids are normal, but while teaching they do not want to feel that they are being supervised all the time.

3. Design Approach for Autism School Design

The main design approach required for Autism School design is that we will have to stimulate the senses. The objective is to balance both the Neuro Typical Approach and the Sensory Design Approach, by creating an environment that makes them independent to face the world, and also be sensitive enough for their needs and requirements. Having releasing valves in the classroom or as a common space between some classrooms will also be helpful in the school design for Autism. Mostly the sensory rooms, cozy coves etc, where the students can be left alone to calm him/ herself is an important part of such design. For the balanced mental growth of a child, implementing activities that involve both sides of the brain can be encouraged in the school and designing spaces for such activities becomes critical.

4. Design Approach for Specific Learning Disability schools

Kids with specific learning disabilities are very normal. But at times due to their inability to process things or instructions, they can get frustrated very easily. Therefore, they also need these releasing valves where they can calm themselves. The school aims at providing different bits of intelligence according to the theory of multiple intelligence. Therefore, the classroom spaces can be as flexible as possible to allow the movement of students between different classrooms, depending on their abilities.

5. Design Objective of Special School Design

Dr. Stephen Shore's says that “If you have met an Autistic person, you have met just one Autistic person”.

We know that every autistic person is different. We wanted to create a design that makes the children capable of facing the real world independently. We wanted to create an environment that is sensitive to the needs of these children. Given the right environment and the teaching method, these children can lead a normal life.

 Overall design objective
Overall design objective

6. Special Needs School Design Process

Over the last few decades, many novel teaching methods have evolved. There are many novel teaching methods that have evolved over the last few decades. Normally, people adapt to an existing building to suit their needs. Now it is different. We can plan for the best school for these kids. We need to consider the following points while involving in such a design.

1. Consider them as ‘Normal Kids’

We all are different and everyone is NORMAL.

2. Re-Imagining Disability

We tried to re-imagine disability. In one way, everybody needs support at some point in our life. Old people need a different kind of support when compared with children. The need for support is not a liability or a disability, but a virtue.

3. Adapting to the teaching methodology

These schools use teaching methods, which is different from normal schools. We have to get the right environment or architecture for these kids so that both the students and the teachers feel comfortable.

4. New approaches

All these years, the school has adapted to an existing building to their needs. Now it is different, now there is a chance to think differently and create the best school for these kids.


As per the famous quote by Albert Einstein, it is important to understand the abilities and needs of every child and give everyone a fair chance of education and opportunity to learn.

But the traditional educational system does not support these kids and that is why they need “special schools”. These “special schools” use various methods of teaching which are different from normal schools. If we can get the right environment or building for these kids, where they feel comfortable, there is nothing like it.

7. Design Criteria

We thought of customising a school according to the needs of these kids and not the teachers – a school which the kids will feel as normal. This was the big challenge and the design evolved after a series of discussions and interactions with the teachers.

Can a sensory “Normal” environment be built for them? We hypothesised that given the right environment and the teaching method, autistic children can lead a normal life.

8. Autism School Design Criteria

Points to be considered for Autism School Design:

1. Flexible and Adaptable Design

The ability to modify an environment at a moment's notice to meet the needs of various activities is one of the most important characteristics in Autism Architectural Design. Movable furnishings and spatial arrangements are preferred in such designs.

Flexible and Adaptable Design
Flexible and Adaptable Design

2. Non – Distracting Space

The spaces should be non-distracting in terms of:

1. Physical clutter and obstruction

2. Odour

3. Visual and aural distractions

3. Controllable Environment

The child should be able to control his/her environment in order to feel more attached to the place.

4. Predictable

Kids with Autism generally show resistance to change. Therefore, the building should be as legible as possible and the sequencing of spaces should be very much predictable.

5. Non – Threatening

As autistic kids have extreme unusual fears and have a high perception of fear, it is advisable to design their environments as non – threatening as possible.

6. Sensory Motor Attuned

It is important to provide spaces that involve pushing, pulling, jumping or hanging. Including furniture that offers deep touch pressure is preferred in the classroom environment for special needs students.

Sensory Motor Attuned
Sensory Motor Attuned

7. Non –Institutional

Feeling really at home in their environment will allow children to relax and learn more. Use of natural light as much as possible and removal of overhead fluorescents, using child-scale furnishings especially in hygiene areas are some of the ways for creating a sense of softness and homeliness.

8. Safety

Children with autism are often prone to seizures and behaviours like tantrums or stimming, because of which there are chances of injury to themselves or others. So, it is better to avoid breakable surfaces, rough textures etc.

9. Design criteria for Specific Learning Disability Schools

Inducing Cognition and Learning is the important strategy that would define a classroom for students with specific learning disabilities and also, will aid these students tremendously. We need to focus on limiting stimulation, preventing distractions, providing acoustic separation between rooms and providing spaces for one-to-one interactions.

10. Sankalp School- Autism School in Chennai

We are involved in the redesign of the Sankalp School Chennai. It is located in Thiruvalluvar Street, Kollapancheri, Chennai. Previously, this building was used as the Ebenezer home for children and old. The total built-up area of the existing current building was around 17,500 sqft.

Sankalp is a registered trust that started in 1999. The trust majorly caters to children suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD). The units of the Sankalp Trust are as follows:

1. The Learning Centre and The Early Intervention Centre – For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

2. Sahayika - Skill training centre for adolescents with ASD

3. The Open School - For children with Specific Learning Disability (SLD).

4. Akaraah - Early Intervention Centre For Children ASD

Building at Sankalp Special Needs School
Old Building at Sankalp Special Needs School

11. Our Project – Special School Design

The result of our experiments is taking shape in the form of a building.

Classroom Concept Planning for special need students
Classroom Concept Planning
Overall 3D view of our proposal
Overall 3D view of our proposal
Overall 3D view of our proposal
3D view of our proposal
View of proposed courtyard
View of proposed courtyard
View of Verandah
View of proposed verandah

12. Important Points Considered in our Design of Sankalp Special Needs School

  1. Building as learning aid (BALA – Architect Kabir Vajpeyi has done extensive work on this)

The various ways in which building can be used as a learning aid are:

  • Using the door swing to get a sense of angles

  • Vertical scale can be used to get a sense of heights.

  • Floor finishes can be used as tools to get a sense of shapes and geometry.

  • The interiors and wall patterns can be used as a fun game to identify colours and shapes.

  • Using interiors and boards at a lower level to build the ability of control (things/ drawing lines etc.) in these students.

Installing maps at different areas of the campus to help children navigate through the building easily and also to develop a sense of directions.
Installing maps at different areas of the campus to help children navigate through the building easily.
  • Installing maps at different areas of the campus to help children navigate through the building easily and also to develop a sense of directions.

  • Using signage along with the distances of the destination to develop the ability of distances and to help the children to read their campus easily.

2. Outdoor Activities and landscaping

Landscape layout
Proposed Landscape layout

Children are great discoveries of space. They like to run, play, jump, climb, hide, talk etc. Apart from academics, the school can focus on physical and creative activities like sports, arts and crafts, carpentry, pottery, weaving, agriculture and farming.

Outdoor spaces in schools also encourage students to learn from the outdoor environment, increases the grasping power, to develop qualities like sharing and caring, learning to live independently over others, sports activities such as athletics, football, volleyball help in improving the children’s gross motor skills (and mind coordination) along with learning. It should be possible to extend the teaching areas to open spaces beyond classrooms. Negative spaces between two building blocks, setback spaces, shaded spaces under trees can be transformed into outdoor learning spaces.

Some of the outdoor plays areas that can be designed in schools are:

  • Play areas that involve equipment like a jungle gym, slides, see-saw etc.

  • Mud water and tyre playground

Play areas that involve equipments like jungle gym, slides, see-saw etc
Play areas that involve equipment like jungle gym, slides, see-saw etc.
  • Spaces like open-air assembly spaces, lawns, courtyards, setbacks and spaces between buildings can be utilized for outdoor play.

  • Sandpits, water play Area, tyre playground, play equipment using waste products

Sandpit area

Landscaping plays a major role in the learning experience of a child. A school campus not only comprises the buildings in a school but rather it also involves the design and presence of landscape as well. A place to grow flowering plants can be introduced in the beds near drinking water points, or taps, medicinal plants can also be planted in the farm outside spaces, plant and animal behavioural patterns can also be observed by implementing aquariums in the school layout (One of the methods of executing aquarium maybe by rainwater harvesting tanks). Butterfly garden can also be introduced.

3. Verandah

There are lots of studies which show that verandas and transition spaces are very important and they act as a buffer zone between high stimulus activities like general classroom, one-to-one interaction spaces, speech therapy etc. and the low stimulus activities like – music, art, craft, psychometric treatments etc.

Proposed verandah of Sankalp School

4. Natural lighting

Instead of completely eliminating windows for making the classrooms non-distracting, blinds etc. can be used to close whenever needed.

5.Colours and materials

Natural and calming colours and materials to be used. Disturbing and overly stimulating colours are to be avoided.

Natural and calming colours
Natural and calming colours

6. The interior design of Special Schools

Creating adaptable niches, alcoves and secret escape spaces are important points to be considered in the design.

7. Interiors – Classroom Furniture

The minimum width and depth of a table for a single student is 600 x 450 mm. The table dimension often preferred is 600 x 600 mm.

Classroom furniture
Classroom furniture
Furniture dimension chart for special schhol

Interior School Bag facilities and shoe racks can also be provided.

Interior School Bag facilities
Interior School Bag facilities

13.Sankalp School Chennai Project Details

We have involved in the following structures:

Sankalp School New Building
Sankalp School New Building

13.1. The Open School

The open school majorly caters to students with specific learning disabilities. The structure of the school is comparatively simple and the school is divided into sections based on abilities. The classrooms, unlike classrooms in other schools, are smaller in size with lesser number of students to encourage more one-to-one interactions. The unit has different labs like math lab, science lab, and different activities like music, dance, arts and craft, brain gym etc. A counselling room, pottery courtyard, resource room are also provided.

13.2. The Learning Centre

The design should ideally cater to the needs of both the students and the teachers. Currently, the learning centre is divided into 6 sections based on learning capabilities and age groups., namely, EIC/Primary, Inter J, Inter I, Inter II, Sahayika Prep and NIOS. These sections are based on the different abilities of these kids. Especially in the junior sections, most of the teaching is activity-based. Also, the teaching methodology gives the flexibility for the student to continue his/her pursuit. If a child is good at a particular skill, then he/she is trained to pursue that skill in future.

13.3. Sahayika

Sahayika is a skill training centre for adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As autistic people prefer following routines and working in an orderly sequence, this particular unit helps them convert their disabilities into skills that can help them face the outside world and live independently as any normal person. Therefore, this section is divided into different workshops like paper products, jewellery, spice production, bakery etc. where the kids and adults undergo a structured learning process.

13.4. Courtyards and Sensory Design (Motor Attuned)

As these kids can sometimes be distracted or agitated at times, they need to break free and let loose to calm themselves. Therefore, courtyards can easily be created based on the way the current building is organized, which can be used as these sensory outlet areas. The courtyards also act as extended classrooms. As mentioned in the design objective, these children also need to be trained to face the outside world. Therefore, these extended classrooms can also help them develop many physical abilities.

Sensory garden layout
Sensory Garden Layout

13.5. Colour Schemes used in our design

Colour Schemes used in the design of Sankalp School
Colour Schemes used in the design of Sankalp School.

Orange is used as a predominant colour throughout the admin block with green and blue as accent colours. A muted orange (the same colour used in the admin block) is used for the walls of common areas (passages, staircase lift areas), this will act as a transition colour from the admin block to the learning centre and so on. Muted greens are used as a predominant colour for the Learning Centre. This is a winning colour family as greens promote restfulness and calm, and they improve efficiency and focus. Blue is best used for learning situations which are challenging as it increases productivity. Hence, it is used for the Sahayaka and Samyuktha areas. Neutrals reduce visual stimulation and blue increases productivity. Therefore, these colours are used for the Open School.

The courtyards seen as extensions of the classrooms can have various pastel shades such as pastel blue, green, orange and violet. The typical primary colours are avoided in children’s play areas as they are very visually stimulating. Space is made more comforting by planting shrubs and trees.

13.6. Sankalp School Landscape Plan

Pathways are provided around the playground so that children can orientate themselves. We have avoided sharp edges and low borders to avoid children getting hurt. For autistic children who might get overwhelmed in a busy playground, a quiet space is provided away from the noise for a child to regroup. Also, natural colours are used here. Spaces are provided for the pottery workshop classes. Using different elements like water, sand and different textures to incorporate the sensory stimulation of touch is important and hence provided a sandpit, ponds and garden. Outdoor classroom sections are also arranged.

Sankalp School Landscape plan
Sankalp School Landscape plan

Photographs Of Sankalp School

Here are a few images of Sankalp School from the site.

Sankalp school images
Sankalp school images
Sankalp school images
Sankalp school images
Sankalp school photos
Images of Sankalp School New Building

Sensory and perception difficulties that bring on states of indifference and anxiety are the main causes of the inadequacy that children with Autism face. An autistic person associates spaces in terms of the senses light, smell, sound and touch (for example dark space, noisy area, soft space) rather than a normal person who associates spaces in terms of physical entities like colours, types, shapes (for example space for shaping, circular space). Architecture and design play a major role in determining the amount of success of therapies offered to people with autism spectrum and specific learning disorders. Through the creative use of space and environment components there can be created designs that provide reassurance to these children. We use various methods of teaching which are different from the normal schools. It is also important to have the right environment or design for these kids so that they feel comfortable. In our Autism School design project, we have assured to provide them with their ideal environment so that they can enjoy like others.