This article was first published in The Sunday Times
The eighth annual World Autism Awareness Day is April 2, 2016. Every year, autism organizations, disability advocates, parents and people with autism from all over the world, celebrate the month of April with unique fundraising and awareness-raising events.
The Inspire foundation believes that everyone has a right to equality and inclusion. We work hundreds of children and adults with various disabilities, including Autism, in order to help them achieve this.
This article aims at raising awareness and educating the public on the autism and the impact of classroom design on the child by Doreen Mercieca MEd Autism (Birm.) – ASD Advisor / Expert Panel – Inspire Foundation
The world around a child with autism can be a source of stress and very difficult to understand, hence the importance of the environment is central to the treatment of autism. These children find comfort when provided with a predictable setting that is well planned and structured, thereby being able to understand what is expected of them and how to behave in each environment.
Over the past years, an array of different approaches and treatments with regards to autism have been developed, many of which have gained international prominence. Research has supported the importance of the environment and have often referred to it as a ‘prosthetic device’. This may be compared to the use of prosthetic devices such as glasses or wheelchairs where the individual is enabled and can function as if the main challenges of the disability were not there. The environment, as a prosthetic device does not change the disability, but overrides it by enabling and empowering the person. Approaches which focus on the impact of the environment leave from the premise that rather than modifying the person to fit into the environment, the focus would be on modifying the environment to cater to the needs of the person with autism. While it is not realistic to attempt to modify every aspect of the environment, the world would be a more accessible place to live in for persons on the autism spectrum if the impact that the environment may have on them would be recognized and understood.
Besides having the knowledge and understanding the manifestations of autism, schools must acknowledge the importance that must be given to the organization of the environment. The physical design of classrooms has an important function in aiding children with autism to understand what is expected of them and to increase their independent functioning. In view that individuals with autism are known to have a strength in processing information through the visual modality, the physical structure of their surroundings may actually enable children to experience less stress and anxiety. The strategic organization of the furniture that defines boundaries to indicate specific areas and the activity associated with that area, is a means of conveying visual information that will enable children to understand what is expected of them in a particular area.
One of the major areas of concern in persons with autism is their ability to process sensory information. Sensory issues in the visual modality are complex and may be affected by the spatial characteristics, design layout and the colours used to furnish and decorate. Examples include, but are not limited to having the walls painted in low arousal, muted colours and having plain pale curtains rather than ones with a busy print. Such considerations are applied in order to produce and maximize a calming effect in the areas used by the children with autism and are linked to evidence based practice. One such research project was held at the Sunfield School in the UK which highlighted how the choice of colours may affect the mood of children by either producing a calming effect or by increasing anxiety.
Children with autism may tend to focus on unimportant details in the environment rather than focusing on relevant information, illustrating the importance of organizing and reducing stimuli that is meaningless to them. Excess sensory input such as visual stimulation is reduced in a neatly arranged environment allowing children to focus on relevant information presented during activities rather than being distracted by unnecessary visual stimulus.
When setting up a work area for persons with autism, an evaluation of the allocated space vis-á-vis natural lighting, should be performed to ensure that bright light is minimized as this may be very disturbing to individuals with autism. In addition, it has also been found that stereotypical behaviours were particularly affected by the intensity and brightness of light. Besides paying attention to the intensity of natural light, it is also important to take into consideration the effect of artificial lighting. Individuals with autism may experience a sensory overload caused by the flicker produced very bright fluorescent lights and that this may affect their visual field and cause distortions. Individuals with autism may find the high speed flicker produced by fluorescent lighting to be extremely distracting. Temple Grandin, a well-known autism activist, compares this feeling to be ‘…standing in the middle of a disco nightclub’, and states that her ability to concentrate in such a setting would be virtually impossible.
The issue of noise is another potential sensory stressor worth attention to provide an optimal environment. Evidence has been brought forth regarding the difficulty that children with autism encounter in the ability to process speech from noise. Soft furnishings such as curtains would be able to dampen the harshness of glass doors and windows thereby softening the echoing and volume of sound within the area.
I often hear comments from people insisting that individuals with autism should learn how to live in the world as it really is, that is without modifying/adapting the environment. This view in fact is discriminatory should it be applied to a person with a physical impairment who would never be expected to adapt to an inaccessible world. With the same reasoning, individuals with autism should not be expected to accommodate themselves to the sensory overloads that the design of the environment may impose on them. Persons with autism describe sensory overload as a shutdown which is comparable to what happens to a computer when it crashes due to excess information. Research which has yielded solid based evidence in this regard and numerous individuals with autism have presented their views through relating real life experiences which mirror the results and conclusions of the research.
From my years of experience, I can concur that there is a positive effect on students with autism when the environment is thoughtfully designed. In low arousal and structured settings, children are calm and can understand what is expected of them, thereby their potential to learn is maximized as their stress levels are reduced. Although most typical, mainstream schools are not designed to cater for the specific needs of children with autism, a student could still benefit from minor environmental alterations that will have a major impact in their ability to cope. The creation of a low arousal, non-stimulating area within the mainstream setting can be a haven for the student with autism to access when feeling stressed or frustrated or basically in need of time out. A number of local mainstream schools do implement minor alterations that have made a major impact on their students with autism. These include identifying a quiet area within the classroom where the child could access should a short break be needed, arranging the furniture in a way to create a low arousal work area increasing the child’s ability to concentrate, setting up a resource room where the child is taken in order to do individual work in a calm and quiet setting.
Although it is very encouraging to see that there are some local schools implementing changes in the design and setting up of their classroom for children with autism, I have seen very anxious and disturbed children in classrooms where no attention has been given to the negative impact that the environment is actually having on the child. Is it fair that the environmental adaptations needed for children on the autism spectrum are being disregarded when one considers that modifications for accessibility made for physical disabilities are upheld by the law?
Unless steps are taken to provide appropriately designed classroom, children with autism will continue to face the challenge of functioning in educational environments. The issues raised regarding the sensory challenges faced by these children are also very real. The impact that can be made by modifying environments is critical as this positively influences the behaviour, functioning and comfort of our children with autism thereby playing an important role in their development and most importantly, their happiness.