Making inclusivity a priority in education design is a necessary step to ensure all students receive equal learning opportunities.
The physical space that any student occupies at school has a strong influence on their ability to learn effectively. For students with autism, this reality is heightened.
Autistic minds are often hypersensitive to their surrounding environment. On both a sensorimotor and cognitive level, these individuals experience deficits in communication and social skills as well as restricted or repetitive behaviors (Autism Spectrum Disorder Basics, Child Mind Institute). Catering the design of our schools to these behaviors is a necessary step to ensure all students receive equal learning opportunities.
As designers, we must be conscientious of neurodiverse children and create comfortable, appropriately stimulating spaces where they can thrive. At a minimum, these are the key elements that must always be considered when designing autistic-friendly educational spaces.
Light and color deeply affect a person’s mood and behavior. Autism friendly lighting design must incorporate a healthy combination of dimmable, indirect LED fixtures (no fluorescents) and natural light to provide a mitigated amount of stimulation
Lighting Design Tip: If the outside world is too stimulating, blinds or translucent window films can be invaluable for easing visual distractions.
Children with autism are highly sensitive to everyday sounds and background noises. Providing better insulated spaces can have a significant impact on their ability to focus and concentrate.
Acoustical Design Tip: Flooring solutions that use rubber or cushioned back materials can help mask high frequency sounds. Similarly, any wall coverings or ceiling treatments that use breathable fabrics with noise reduction properties can be applied to aid in sound absorption.
3) Sensory Design
Often, the smallest sensory design consideration can have an insurmountable impact on a student with autism. This makes it important to design ‘sensory sensitive’ educational spaces that are responsive to varying preferences in smells, sounds, visual stimuli, and the way certain objects and materials feel.
Sensory Design Tips: Stay away from Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) paints and incorporate natural ventilation to enhance air movement. Consider the application of visual cues through wayfinding floor patterns or virtual floor signage to enhance navigation through hallways. Most importantly, provide easy access to tactile surfaces and features to help students relax, focus or calm down from an overwhelming scenario.
‘Sensory sensitive’ design also applies to strategic furniture selection. To ensure maximum comfort, it is important to stay away from certain textiles and fabrics that can be distressing to children with autism.
Furniture Design Tip: Opting for plush yet durable materials is beneficial for potential repetitive touching. Additionally, choosing sleek, easily sanitized finishes are helpful for those who may have a compulsive-like need for cleanliness.
5) The Power of Choice
During a moment of overstimulation, many children with autism can experience ‘sensory overload’ and exhibit abstruse social responses. When this happens at school, it is crucial that students are given the flexibility to choose safe coping mechanisms for themselves.
Power of Choice Design Tip: Creating easy access to designated ‘sensory rooms’ or ‘escape spaces’ inside schools can offer students immense comfort and respite from distressing experiences or interactions.
6) Programmatic Needs
There are important responsibilities placed on schools, teachers and other professionals who work directly with children with autism. One of the best things schools can do is offer effective instructional programs that utilize strong therapeutic interventions and procedures.
Program Design Tip: Effective wayfinding and one-way directional paths can help students with autism better navigate through potentially crowded, overstimulated hallways. Coordinating this with strategic signage and graphic selection is an excellent safeguard to improve navigation.
Designers too, have a responsibility to work with schools to create welcoming and resilient spaces that are suitable for all students. Therefore, these key elements are not exclusive to autistic-friendly spaces; they translate to every building for everyone.