Sensible + Sensitive Solutions

Sensible + Sensitive Solutions

The winning design for the autism classroom uses existing furniture to create quiet areas and more interactive spaces.

For students in Interior Architecture, working on the annual department-wide charette calls for collective brainstorming and intense, around-the-clock collaboration. Students are given five days—during which all other classes are suspended —to solve a specific design challenge under conditions akin to a professional competition.

On Thursday morning, October 22, all 95 undergrad and grad students in IA gathered at RISD’s Center for Integrative Technologies (CIT) to be briefed about this year’s challenge: to improve a classroom for students with autism at Providence’s Anthony Carnevale Elementary School. Given strict budget constraints and the special needs of the “client”—elementary school students and the teachers who work with them—the timed challenge would demand “superhuman effort,” cautioned Department Head Liliane Wong.

To launch the charette, a team from Carnevale headed by Special Education Teacher Shannon Caverly visited RISD to talk about the specific challenges of educating students with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. She explained that her team had begun to brainstorm about how to create a modular space with a high sense of structure but with the flexibility to accommodate the sensory sensitivities of young learners with ASD. Seeking design expertise, Carnevale’s Supervising Occupational Therapist Dina DeAngelis reached out to RISD for help last summer and found a welcome response from Wong, who agreed to introduce the challenge as this year’s departmental charette.

Creative quest
Once students were assigned to one of 10 teams that mixed majors at all levels, leaders from each group visited the school on Thursday afternoon, where they measured and assessed the classroom, and asked Caverly how design issues like visibility, openness and illumination impact daily operations. Their charge was to propose design interventions to transform the current classroom for second- and third-grade students into “a joyous and safe space” for learning, while also creating an environment that would foster positive progress toward allowing autistic students to integrate into mainstream classrooms.

“Working with clients brings this closer to a real-world proposition, which students really thrive on,” notes IA Critic Elizabeth Debs, who coordinated this year’s charette. Ana Morataya Quan MDes 17, whose father provides therapy for children with autism, couldn’t agree more. “Creating something that will be a fundamental tool to help this and future generations of ASD students to come is incredibly gratifying,” she says. Quan’s teammate Sneha Sridhar MA 16 concurs that the effort was worth it – even after putting in four 11-hour days to develop their design proposal. “This project will hopefully help make a difference and offer a comfortable learning environment for students with ASD.”

After each team presented their proposals on Tuesday, October 27, IA faculty, interested students from other departments and representatives from Providence Public Schools voted anonymously for the proposal they felt has most merit. By midday Quan and Sridhar were thrilled to learn that their team’s proposal won, meaning that they will have the opportunity to work with Caverly and the elementary school students she teaches to implement their design solution during Wintersession.

Flexible, functional and feasible
“As designers, we all hope to translate ideas into actuality,” says Sridhar. And despite the many obstacles they met along the way, Quan praises her team for always making the right intervention to bring about a beautiful and achievable design.

The winning proposal emphasizes sustainability by adapting current furniture to a scheme that integrates sensory and comfort areas into the rear wall, thus eliminating blind spots and encouraging interaction in the center of the learning space. “The functionality of the design is what is most impressive to me,” says Caverly, who applauded the innovation of each of the proposals presented. She commends IA students for accounting for the environmental and sensory needs of her students, adding that she wishes she could “create a ‘dream’ autism classroom environment” that integrates elements of all the proposed designs.

DeAngelis echoes Caverly’s enthusiasm, adding that the proposals “really speak to the delicate balance of function, texture, movement and flexibility required of an autism classroom.”

“Being involved in such a specific design case,” Sridhar says of the charette, “expands the possibilities of entering a field of client-specific design,” especially one with the intrinsic rewards of designing for autism. With such an important project, adds Quan, “what you want is for the kids to have the best solution,” something she and her team are gratified to have delivered.

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