The Northern School for Autism with two campuses in the State of Victoria (one based in Lalor and the other in Reservoir) have designed with the children’s physical and emotional needs in mind.
The outside spaces have been designed based on the principle that children with autism spectrum disorder need to be physically stimulated to release pent-up energy and frustration. Catering to the need for autistic children to develop and strengthen their fine and gross motor skills, a number of safe but challenging, fun and engaging play equipment pieces have been included, both fixed and moveable.
Both campuses feature a bike track with well delineated edges to the paths and this facility is coupled with a bicycling education program. Climbing nets, a ropes climbing course, slides, tunnels and bridges are also featured to allow children to progressively improve their physical skills and gain self-esteem, confidence and independence.
The play areas are secure spaces, with age-appropriate activities and discrete places for children to withdraw from sensory over-stimulation when necessary. Water play is encouraged at both campuses through facilities such as sand and water tables. Swings and other equipment that stimulate the vestibular and proprioceptive systems of students are also used to help reduce behaviours such as excess rocking, spinning and hand flapping during indoor learning times.
Some educational activities are held outdoors and the furniture has been carefully chosen to be durable and fit for the purpose, with both shaded seating and full-sun seating available. This allows for students with photosensitivity to have appropriate facilities.
Whilst this school has provided a number of excellent facilities for stimulating the physical needs of students, we would argue that it is sadly lacking in interaction with nature. There are very few plants included in the design and students are missing out on the multitude of benefits that interacting with nature can bring. A sensory garden, together with other simple natural elements such as stones and logs, would be very easy to introduce to the spaces. You can see some examples of sensory gardens for children in this post. Retrofitting many of the design principles and elements of natural spaces can usually be done with a minimum of cost and effort. The health benefits, the improvements in sensory integration, the knowledge gained by interacting with flora and fauna, as well as the pure enjoyment of nature would all heighten the schooling experience for students and expand their life skills.
A more holistic approach to the advantages, beauty and health outcomes of students with autism spectrum disorder would certainly maximise the use of the space and intensify the myriad of positive results achieved through interaction with nature and exploring outdoor spaces.