Students’ goal: Redesign kitchen for family with two special needs children. Kathryn Rivera, interior design professor at Seminole State College of Florida, is blazing a new trail in the emerging field of designing interior spaces for people with autism. For the past three years, Rivera has taught classes at Seminole State on topics such as building codes, commercial design studios and computer-aided design. Now, she and nine students are embarking on a pilot course called Designing for Special Needs/Autism.
“It’s still something new we’re all exploring,” she says, pointing out that Seminole State is one of the first design programs to address this special need. “Autism is a spectrum, and there’s no one solution for everyone with the disorder.” Meeting once a week at the Heathrow Campus, the course is the brainchild of Bert Fonseca, a Sanford resident and member of the Construction Advisory Board. Fonseca, who attended the college in the late 1980s, has two children with autism: Danny, 15, and Isabel, 14. “Danny is a gentle giant with a heart of gold,” Fonseca says. “Over the years, he’s been taught to follow a schedule and stay regimented. He’s a freshman at Lyman High School, and our goal is for him to be a contributing member of society.” “As for Isabel,” Fonseca continues, “her disability is a bit more profound. She has no sense of danger, which gives her a higher propensity for accidents, especially when we’re in the kitchen. She needs constant supervision.”
Raising two children with autism, Fonseca and his wife, Michelle, learned to do a lot of cooking from home. Eating out, with all of its sensory distractions, was too much of a challenge. Their galley-style kitchen, unfortunately, hasn’t provided the best functionality for Danny and Isabel.
Fonseca proposed a design challenge and unique learning experience for the Seminole State Interior Design program: to give students the opportunity to learn about autism and propose a design that would allow his children to gain a level of independence by learning to prepare their own meals. Such a life skill would help them toward their goal of self-reliance. For example, Rivera explains, convection burners on the stove are not hot to the touch. And certain appliances have too many buttons, which can be frustrating for someone with autism. Simpler is better. “It’s all about getting to know the Fonseca family and designing an environment that will be on ducive to their lifestyle,” says Rivera, who helped redesign a school for autistic children at her previous design firm. “I am facilitating the class, but have challenged the students to conduct their own research that will provide a foundation for their design solution.” The course, which started Aug. 25 and continues through Dec. 13, begins by exploring autism and what the design community is doing about it. From there, students will visit Access Charter School in Orlando to observe special needs children and their teachers, learning how to best incorporate practical design techniques. After meeting with the Fonsecas, the class will develop a preliminary design of the family’s kitchen for initial approval.
Once revisions are made, the class ends with a design presentation that includes a book of all the suggestions. Of course, it will be up to Bert and Michelle Fonseca – with input from Danny and Isabel – just how far they take the advice. “I want to provide a setting where the kitchen is a place for us to enjoy meals with friends and family,” Fonseca says. “We also want to bring awareness to this new field of interior design. We’re hoping that, through this course, these students can have a personal experience that triggers a passion to incorporate accessibility for special needs individuals.”
Source Exceptional Parent Magazine