Sensory Processing Differences and Classroom Design
‘Sensory processing’ refers to how a person’s nervous system responds to sensory information and how they react to it. autistic individuals often find it challenging to prioritise the stimuli to process in their environment, making it difficult to focus on a single stimulus. Atypical sensory processing in autism involves hyper- or hypoactive responses to sensory input. Special school classroom design can have a huge impact on how effectively children can learn in that environment.
Sensory Processing as a Characteristic of Autism
Recent studies suggest that atypical sensory processing is a common clinical characteristic of autism. Difficulties in peripheral and central sensory processing are biological markers of autism, influenced by genetic, environmental, and behavioural factors.
Role of Visual Differences
Some people, may be extra sensitive to what they see. Imagine if you were looking at a very bright light, and it felt too intense for your eyes. If that light is in fact quite dim that’s hypersensitivity to visual input, you may experience this if you are tired or stressed. Some children experience this the whole time. It means that some people might get overwhelmed or bothered by certain things they see, even if others don’t feel the same way.
These differences in how we see things can affect how we feel in certain places, like in a busy and colourful classroom, where there’s a lot to look at. Some students might find it a bit too much to handle, while others might be perfectly fine with it. It’s all about how our brains process what we see and how we react to it. The real problem comes when adults – those in control – are inflexible and unwilling to make reasonable adjustments.
Classroom Environments and Sensory Aversion
Classroom environments, with their rapidly changing and multimodal sensory input, can contribute to sensory aversion in autistic children or those with sensory processing disorder. Visual stimuli, such as wall decorations, can compete with social attention, leading to difficulties in focusing on the teacher.
Theory of Affordance & Classroom Design
A relevant theory called the ‘Theory of Affordance’ (Gibson, 1979) suggests that individuals have a need for objects in their environment to offer possibilities for action. In a classroom setting, the visual environment should provide ‘affordances’ for opportunity. This relationship between the individual and the visual elements of the environment affects visual sensory processing. For autistic children, differences in perceiving affordances can impact adaptive responses, how they respond to certain things – this may then get labelled as “Challenging behaviour“. When a student can’t determine the affordances of an object in the classroom, it may lead to hyper- or hypoactive reactions.
Impact on Responses to Classroom Objects
To mediate this, it’s important to consider each student’s adaptive response and design the visual elements accordingly. Despite the value of student voice, it has not been widely sought in educational research or practice. Often trends in classroom design are led by instagram or social media trends. Think hessian backing. This does not necessarily mean they are bad practice in terms of inclusion but can lead to more “Your classroom looks lovely!” comments rather than “Your classroom seems like a calm safe learning environment”.
Classroom Design and Stimuli
Difficulty Filtering Stimuli
Autistic individuals often struggle with sensory filtering. They absorb every detail, including background noise, sights, and smells, without automatically isolating what’s essential. This abundance of information competes for their attention, leading to overwhelming experiences. Unlike our subconscious filtering, they must consciously piece together relevant information and block out distractions. This exhaustive process delays their cognitive processing, causing sensory overload and cognitive strain.
Resulting Sensory Overload
When your brain struggles to filter stimulation effectively, it gets easily distracted by all the details, making it mentally exhausting to prioritise what’s important and concentrate on relevant tasks. This can easily lead to high levels of cognitive load and stress for the child. This in turn may lead to masking or meltdowns, again leading to sanctions. Ultimately if the child does not see the classroom as a safe space school induced anxiety will increase.
Allowing Time for Processing
Allow the child more time to process information at their own pace, considering our overwhelming and chaotic sensory world from their perspective. Be patient and respectful, giving extra time for processing and responding. When the child appears resistant or disengaged, it might be a protective response to feeling overwhelmed. In such cases, assume that processing overload is occurring, and understand that their behavior may not always match expectations.
Recommendations for Accommodations
To create effective learning environments, it’s important to minimise sensory clutter that can cause distractions and overwhelm. Some classrooms have an abundance of colourful posters, decorations, and visual learning tools covering every inch of the walls, which can be overwhelming. Effective classrooms opt for a simpler environment with fewer stimuli to process and compete with. Minimising noise, sources of light, and visual clutter is essential. Seating the child near the front of the room and using a portable partition to minimise distractions can be helpful. Additionally, listening to music or calming noises through headphones can block out other noises and create a focused learning environment.
Here are some recommended good practice in designing your classroom. For more ideas check out Creating a sensory friendly classroom to support learning.
- Displays – use natural colours, limit bright colours. Don’t have too much on display.
- Surfaces – limit clutter on desks. Have specific places for equipment and belongings.
- Storage – labelled areas, assign monitors to help put away resources.
- Noise levels – establish clear rules. Use noise charts. Assign roles during transitions.
- Lighting – be aware of where light is shining. Position children to avoid glare. Use pastel backgrounds on IWB.
The main ideas are to limit visual distractions, reduce unnecessary noise, and organise the classroom effectively. Making these changes will create a more sensory-friendly environment that helps children focus. This video by D.r Pooky Knighsmith goes into more detail about the subject of autistic friendly classroom design.
Student Perspectives on Classroom Design
Listening to Students on Visual Clutter
By actively listening to students’ perspectives on “visual clutter” in the classroom, we gain insights for optimising classroom design. Understanding how individual students respond to visual stimuli helps tailor personalised support measures. This approach fosters an environment that enhances the quality of life for autistic children rather than hindering their inclusion.
Impact of Clutter on Engagement
When classrooms are thoughtfully designed for inclusivity, teachers can implement effective inclusive pedagogies without the physical environment becoming a barrier to students’ well-being and engagement.
Optimising Classroom Design
By listening attentively to students’ interpretations of ‘visual clutter’ in the classroom, educators and designers can better understand the diverse ways in which children experience and interact with their environment. This understanding can serve as a catalyst for making meaningful changes to classroom design, leading to an enhanced educational experience, more effective learning.
Classroom Design: Fostering Inclusive Environments
Simplifying the classroom layout, minimising distractions, and using neutral or subdued colours can help create a visually soothing environment that supports students’ attention and concentration. Creating designated areas for different activities, such as quiet spaces for individual work and defined areas for group collaboration, can also contribute to a more organised and purposeful learning environment.
Addressing Sensory Needs in Classrooms
When the physical environment fosters inclusion, it sets the stage for the effective implementation of inclusive teaching practices. By addressing the specific sensory needs of students with ASD, educators can better facilitate their participation and engagement in the classroom. As a result, the classroom becomes a space that nurtures students’ overall well-being and supports their cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Promoting Success through Inclusive Design
Understanding and addressing the concept of visual clutter in classroom design is crucial for creating inclusive learning environments that accommodate the needs of autistic children and those with SPD. By actively listening to children’s experiences and making thoughtful modifications to the physical environment, we can create classrooms that enhance the educational experience and quality of life for all. Promoting inclusion rather than acting as barriers to success.
References Linked to Special Education Classroom Design
Education Gateshead. 2020. Creating a Sensory Friendly Classroom to Support Learning.
Gibson, J. J. 1979. The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Grandgeorge, M. and Masataka, N.. 2016. Atypical color preference in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in Psychology,7, 1–5.