Design for Unique Learners: Innovative Learning Environments and their Post-Occupancy Evaluation for Students with Developmental, Cognitive, & Multiple Disabilities


North Tower - 2nd Floor - Harbor

  • Primary Core Competencies: Educational Visioning
  • AIA CEU: 1.0 LU HSW
  • Secondary Core Competencies: Assessment of the School Facility


The design of learning environments requires the synthesis of many factors in order to create spaces that are safe, functional, and comfortable. In addition, as architects we also strive to create environments that support and enhance the learning experience for students and teachers. This is especially true in the design of learning environments for students with Developmental, Cognitive, and Multiple Disabilities (MD) as well as Severe Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD). The number of students with these challenges continues to rise: In 2015–16, the number of children and youth receiving services was 6.7 million, corresponding to 13 percent of total public school enrollment (National Center for Education Statistics). 1 in 59 (1.7%) children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (CDC Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network Data 2018). From 2014 to 2016, the prevalence of children ages 3-17 who had been diagnosed with Developmental Disabilities rose from 5.76% to 6.99%. Developmental Disabilities range from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism (CDC National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief, November 2017) 1 in 20 children are affected by a spectrum of Sensory Processing Disorder (per SPD Foundation study, 2004). For these unique learners with severe conditions, such as students who have medical and physical fragility or extreme sensitivity to large groups of people, lighting, noise levels, and visual distractions, etc., the physical environment can present additional challenges for learning. Evidence-based and innovatively designed learning spaces mitigate challenges presented by the physical learning environment and can become an integral part of a school district’s education strategy, as well as the student’s IEP needs. Further, there is opportunity to reduce stress and ‘burn-out’ experienced commonly by the teachers and staff working with these severe special needs students by creating physical environments that work towards reducing the daily challenges and enhance learning potentials/scenarios. This presentation will focus on the ongoing efforts by the Albuquerque Public School district (APS) and its Facilities, Design & Construction department and Special Education department. APS is the 28th largest school district in the country covering 1,200 square miles of geographical area serving over 90,000 public school students and 5,000 charter school students. It maintains over 14 million square feet of space in over 144 schools. Their population of unique learners includes: 13,000 students ages 3-22 with a range of specific disabilities including Autism, Medically Fragile, Other Health Impaired, Emotionally Disturbed, Specific Learning Disabled, Visually Impaired, Hearing Impaired and Speech Language Impaired. The district serves over 1100 students with ASD, out of which approximately 640 students are in very specialized programs. APS has been proactively addressing the needs of students through innovative design strategy for their learning environments for the last 10 years. The panel will showcase these approaches and the post-occupancy evaluation through 3 case study projects followed by a discussion session.

Learning Objectives

OBJ #1  Understanding of the demographic shift in particular categories of special education students and its impact on school facility design.

OBJ #2  How the built environment can help reduce the health and safety risk to special education students.

OBJ #3  How innovative evidence-based design strategies can help support learning objectives and Individual Education Plan (IEP) of ASD, MD, and SD special education students.

OBJ #4  How evidence-based innovative design strategies can help mitigate teacher ‘burn out’ and attrition in ASD, MD, and SD special education programs.

Karen Alarid, RA, AIA, Executive Director Facilities Design and Construction, Albuquerque Public Schools

Kizito Wijenje, AICP, Executive Director, Albuquerque Public Schools

Lila Ramirez, Exceptional Student District Specialist for Comprehensive Services, Albuquerque Public Schools

Rupal Engineer, RA, Principal in Charge, Design Plus Architects