Autism school drawing parents' interest

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

By Matthew Ralph for the Gloucester County Times

DEPTFORD TWP. Anticipating the completion of a $13 million county school designed specifically for children with autism, some parents from outside the area have expressed interest in moving to take advantage of a school specifically designed to minimize distractions of light, sound and touch.

"It's a mixed blessing," said Fred Keating, superintendent of the Gloucester County Special Services District. "It's flattering, but it's putting additional pressure."

The school, by Garrison Architects of Mt. Laurel, is designed for close to 200 special education students ages 3 to 21, is expected to be 75 percent filled when it opens in September.

A majority of those students are already being educated in the district 80 at the overcrowded Child Development Center in Washington Township and another 70 between the Bankbridge Elementary and Bankbridge Regional schools in Deptford Township.

Mike Dicken, director of special education for the special services district, said the new facility will better serve students because it is designed with the complex development disorder in mind.

"Noise in the room, textures in the room are all things that can cause distractions," said Dicken.

For that reason, the 52,000-square-foot school, to be named the Bankbridge Development Center, is "not extravagant" by design.

"Nothing is overwhelming in its size or scope," said Keating, his shoes muddied as he toured the facility Tuesday. "The ceilings are low, the classroom space is small. Everything is scaled to a more personal level."

Though the facility is still several months away from completion at the rate construction is going now an early summer completion is projected elements of the autistic-friendly design are already visible.

The 20 classrooms are each broken up by rooms with large spaces for windows that will be used both as observation rooms and space for individualized instruction.

In place of a traditional gymnasium is an all-purpose room half the size of a typical gymnasium with a low ceiling. The cafeteria is a third the size of a traditional school eatery.

"We didn't want a gymnasium," Keating said. "We wanted a room defined around occupational therapy and motor skills as opposed to a traditional gym."

The all-purpose room, now filled with an assortment of construction equipment and supplies, will also double as a meeting space for parents.

Providing space for parent and family programs is a key emphasis of the facility, according to Keating, who sees the new building as "much more than a school."

In addition to family services available to all county residents Keating said the building will house the Gloucester County Health Department's special child health division and early intervention program.

Partnerships with area hospitals and universities will bring research and other resources into the school and make the center a "focal point" for educating students with a disorder that is said to afflict as many as 1 in 166 children. The facility will also include two playgrounds.

"This is not the answer for every child," Keating said. "This is going to be a one-stop center for all families in this county with children who have autism."

 

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