Extreme sensitivity to external stimuli, such as sight, touch, taste, and sound, is a defining trait of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Joan Scott Love, a Senior Lecturer in Interior Architecture at Leeds Beckett University, emphasized the value of autism-friendly environments and architecture in an article this month for The Conversation, a website focusing on a wide range of cultural, political, and environmental issues.
“An optimized learning environment is vital for every child,” Love writes. “For autistic children, the importance of environment is magnified, as are the benefits that can be achieved through appropriate architecture and design.”
In her article, Love says she has spent the past five years researching how to teach future designers about autism-friendly environments. She writes that her research, which focused on eight case study schools and colleges, has identified numerous ways schools can adjust their environments to help young people with autism cope with their surroundings, and learn more effectively as a result.
These methods include providing what Love calls “pause places,” meaning small spaces in an inside or outside area, where students with autism would be able to stand back, process information, and take a breather. She also recommends adding side entrances that are quieter and less busy than the main ones. Schools could also accommodate students with autism by providing both a long, slower route to the school from the playground, along with a quick, shorter one, giving students with autism the time to process information and a choice between the faster and slower route.
Some students with autism may want to return to a place they have just visited for reassurance. Their anxiety can be relieved through strategically placed openings, allowing them to see where they have just come from, without having to physically go back. This would allow more time for learning in the classroom.
Love suggests that schools offer activities that emulate real-life tasks, allowing children with autism to see patterns and connections with things. For example, Love suggests creating a mock up shop in the classroom and on the playground, that could teach children with autism how to generalize the skill of exchanging payment for goods, in different environments. She also recommends “taster spaces.” Essentially, this means allowing children with autism to participate in a pre-activity, before building up to a larger one (for example, playing a percussion wall before playing an instrument, or interacting with a shallow water channel before entering a pool).
In conclusion, Love says these ideas highlight the importance of encouraging a richer learning experience for children with autism, in an autism-friendly (or “regulated responsive”) environment. Love recognizes that there is no single approach, since no two autistic people experience their environment in the same way. However, small changes, like the ones she recommends, can make a difference in improving learning and quality of life for autistic children and their families.