Abu Dhabi opens centre for autistic children: Insights by client, architect and interior designer

The challenge of designing school buildings for children who have an inability to communicate, co-ordination difficulties and attention deficiency was tackled by architects Leo A Daly.

The US-based New England Center for Children (NECC) has opened an education facility for autistic young people in Abu Dhabi after being hired by the government of the emirate.

Its brief was: “To plan a school and residential facility to transform the lives of children with autism.”
Architects were faced with the issue of creating scale and dynamics which would positively help the development of a child with autism which limits their social interaction and awareness.

Their task was to create two specialised buildings on a 13,000m2 site. One would provide daytime education space for 100 students while the other would act as housing for 24 children who need a more intensive level of care and supervision.

The designers said that each classroom has plenty of storage space as well as an observation room so parents and staff can observe without distracting the children. And near each classroom is a breakout room for use when a child needs his or her own “time-out”.

The education wing also has a medical suite which includes workspaces for nurses and physicians and examination rooms for dispensing daily medications and primary care for students who live onsite.
Like the educational wing, the residential facility was designed with safety in mind especially with regard to the students.

In these rooms children learn to perform daily tasks, get ready for school and activities and help make meals—all in a controlled environment.

The plan forms part of Abu Dhabi’s drive to improve the healthcare of its citizens and was initially overseen by the government’s Seha – “health” in Arabic – department.

Ministers initially approached NECC, based in Southborough, Massachusetts, to envision the facility in Mohammed bin Zayed City and, in turn, US company Leo A Daly created it from the ground up working alongside Morgan Consulting Engineers and designers Peddle Thorp.

“But it needed to maintain a warm, home-like atmosphere,” said Abu Dhabi-based NECC clinical expert Daniel Gould who acted as advisor to the architects and engineers.

The facility also serves as a training ground for teachers.

“It has been compared to the ‘teaching hospital’ model, where professionals come for academic training and supervised experience,” Gould said.

Omaha-based Tom Philippi, vice president of Leo A Daly, led the concept design.

Philippi said: “We saw how children in the (up and running) Boston facility interacted within the space, which gave us a sense of how the children in Abu Dhabi would do so.

“Every time I imagined the design, I had to think of potential safety issues and choose finishes that children cannot damage or that wouldn’t damage them.

“We used the terminology ‘bullet-proof’ because the rooms have to be nearly indestructible. We put an extra layer of acrylic on windows, and enclosed televisions in acrylic cabinets.”

The design itself was in four parts with self-contained fascilities.

“We designed four quadrants, each with a dining room and kitchen, so kids learn skills that allow them to integrate into family activities,” Philippi said.

Interior Designer
Leo A Daly associate Jenny Tredway, working out of the company’s Dallas office, created the interiors.

“Visiting with the NECC staff, teachers and students—and interacting with them—had a huge influence on my interpretation of the interior areas,” Tredway said.

“I learned that there are very functional children and children who simply cannot interact with society—and that they needed safe, quiet spaces to escape to.

“Children respond to brighter colours more than to subdued tones. So, we used red and yellow in carrels [individual study partitions] for younger kids and blues and greens for older kids.”

Tredway said the end result was one she was extremely proud of on behalf of her design team colleagues.
“It was satisfying to see what we had intended design-wise was actually being carried out. It was rewarding to work on this project, knowing how much we were helping these children and their families.”

The completed project has been widely praised and the project was one which its designers were very excited by.
“When we pulled up to the jobsite, it took my breath away,” Tom Philippi said.

Daniel Gould, chief clinical officer for NECC Abu Dhabi, said the emirate was in urgent need of a facility to aid the development of children with autism as the condition is the world’s fastest-growing developmental disability.

Clinically, across the world, more children are diagnosed with autism than diabetes or cancer.

The hospital is now operational and able to help children with autism – a condition which affects the way the brain uses or transmits information.

The severity of the condition varies between individuals, ranging from the most severe, extremely unusual, repetitive, self-injurious, and aggressive behaviour, to very mild.