Why should you consider the needs of students with autism when setting up your classroom for the new year?
Research has consistently indicated there are benefits in adapting the classroom environment to meet the needs of students with autism (Hurth, Shaw, Izeman, Whaley & Rogers, 1999).
Comprehensive/structured learning environments are one of six core elements empirically supported for effective educational practices for students on the spectrum (Lovanone, Dunlap, Huber & Kincaid, 2003).
Qualitative studies of autobiographical texts by authors on the spectrum has highlighted that people with autism often have sensory sensitivities that cause challenges when processing environmental stimuli. The experience of these authors is that negotiating the sensory geographies requires considerable work, and that their efforts are rarely understood or assisted by those who do not share the same sensitivities (Davidson, 2010).
Other research has found that students do better in organized and structured classrooms (Heflin & Alberto, 2001).
Students with the attributes of autism may have difficulty gaining meaning from the classroom activities and/or environment. Defining specific activities to particular areas can help students predict and understand what is expected of them throughout the day.
Keeping sensory stimuli to a minimum can also assist students by keeping distractions to a minimum and allow them to pay attention to the relevant information (Hume, 2007). Students with limited executive function, as is commonly seen with autism and ADHD, may benefit from a well structured classroom when packing up homework or gathering materials for a class project, as in these cases they are required to pay attention to both the immediate situation as well as the future outcomes. Low executive function can look like low intelligence, but once executive function is improved your students may be able to complete tasks with greater competency.
So if setting up your classroom with students with autism in mind is well supported by the research, how should this be done?
Kara Hume, PhD, classroom teacher autism specialist with over 17 year’s experience, has identified two key goals when organizing your classroom: create clear physical boundaries and minimise auditory and visual distractions (Hume, 2007).
1. Creating clear physical boundaries
This helps students anticipate what will happen in each area and clarifies their expectations. Once they learn the appropriate behaviours in each space, the physical environment becomes a powerful cue. Students who are impulsive can more easily learn when to start/stop an activity if there are physical boundaries.
These boundaries can include furnishings, but they are not meant to contain students; rather they exaggerate the cues for expectations Tape on the floor can be very effective. Your students will need time and opportunities to learn what is expected of them in each space. You may need to evaluate the boundaries to ensure they are meaningful for your students (Hume, 2007).
2. Minimising auditory and visual distractions
While a colourful and busy classroom may be appealing to many students, for those on the spectrum too much stimulation can be at best distracting and at worst, distressing. While visual supports are a very effective way of communicating key information to students with autism, information overload may slow down or even stop cognitive processing.
Think about how much information needs to be on classroom walls or hanging from the ceiling. There may be ways to hang displays so that it is out of sight for those most easily distracted (Hume, 2007). Patterned furnishings or slatted blinds can capture the attention of students with a fascination for counting or shape recognition, so be aware of floorings or ceilings that may distract. Windows, doors and reflective surfaces may also need to be covered, and students with light sensitivities should be seated away from bright windows. (Some students might wear a cap or glasses with special lenses to minimize bright lights).
A rolling room divider can be very useful for separating distracting areas from distractible students. Fluorescent lighting is often painful to the eyes and ears for people with sensory sensitivities. Use soft lighting wherever possible and lights with a dimmer switch can be calming.
Students with autism may find it hard to filter out background noises. Consider auditory stimulation that might interfere with your students’ learning. Soft furnishings or carpet caps can help reduce the scraping of chairs and table legs. Try not to seat students with sound sensitivities next to dripping taps, computer fans or ticking clocks.
Noise blocking headphones could be considered for students who cannot concentrate due to normal classroom noises; you may need to use simple gestures to communicate with these students when they are wearing their headphones.
Sight and sound are not the only senses that might be overloaded by the classroom environment. Also consider smell (strong perfumes are best avoided!), taste (most commonly seen in food preferences), touch, body awareness and balance. While most of the strategies suggested here deal with hyper (over) sensitivity, hypo (under) sensitivities are also common (for example, a child who chews through ipad cases is possibly hypo-sensitive to oral stimulation). A student may fluctuate between hyper – and hypo-sensitivity. For specific strategies for any of these sensitivities, please contact the research and information team at Altogether Autism.
Davidson, J. (2010). “It cuts both ways”: A relational approach to access and accommodation for autism. Social Science and Medicine, 70(2) 305-312. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953609006935
Heflin, J. & Alberto, O. (2001). Establishing a behavioural context for learning for students with autism. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities, 16(2), 93-102.
Hurth, J., Shaw, E., Iseman, S., Whaley, K. & Rogers, S. (1999). Areas of agreement about effective practices among programs serving young children with autism spectrum disorders. Infants and Young Children, 12(2), 17-26.
Lovanone, R., Dunlap, G., Huber, H. & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective education practices for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities, 18(3), 150-165. doi: 10.1177/10883576030180030301