Designing Classrooms to Support Neurodiversity

Author: Tatiana Curry

There is strong research support indicating that the way the classroom environment is arranged can greatly impact the learning outcomes of students with autism.

Individuals on the autism spectrum are often referred to as neurodiverse. Children with autism struggle with effective communication and information processing, in addition to sensory challenges that may hinder their ability to socialize with peers. According to the National Autism Association, 1 out of 36 children are diagnosed with autism.

The impact of environmental stimuli is significant for individuals with autism. To promote academic and social success, classroom design and structure play a crucial role. Studies have consistently shown that a structured learning environment tailored to the needs of neurodiverse students plays a crucial role in learning.

Design to Minimize Sensory Overload

Studies have demonstrated that establishing a sensory-friendly setting can result in favorable educational results. Children on the autism spectrum frequently encounter sensory difficulties and become sidetracked by various sensations. With an excess of sensory stimuli, autistic students may find it difficult to prioritize crucial information. Evidence indicates that when pupils experience sensory overload, their capacity to process information significantly decreases.

It is crucial to minimize classroom distractions for children on the spectrum. Teachers should aim to create a sensory-friendly environment by limiting potential distractions. To achieve this, it is important to carefully select and prioritize which materials will be displayed on the walls to reduce sensory overload. Relevant and functional materials can be posted in designated areas to help increase communication and understanding while keeping in mind that clutter can be overwhelming for students on the spectrum, so creating designated spaces for items can help reduce it and make the classroom more sensory-friendly.

Design to Improve Classroom Acoustics

Creating an optimal learning environment for neurodivergent students involves paying attention to acoustics. Many students on the autism spectrum are highly sensitive to sounds. To accommodate their needs, it is recommended to have carpeting in the classroom. This provides better sound absorption, which aids concentration and benefits students who are hypersensitive to noise. Individuals with autism must have the freedom to choose whether or not they find noise comfortable. To support them, noise-canceling headphones are a useful purchase for a classroom of students on the spectrum. My students have found noise-canceling headphones to be helpful in blocking out uncomfortable sounds. Additionally, playing soothing music has been shown to increase attention and focus in children. Improving classroom acoustics can have a significant positive impact on neurodivergent students.

Design Using Dynamic Lighting

When designing a classroom for individuals on the autism spectrum, lighting is an important factor to consider. Some students with autism have increased repetitive behaviors when exposed to fluorescent lights.  Most children with autism are hypersensitive to extremely bright light, which can cause stress. Therefore, neurodiverse students may prefer alternative sources of lighting. Including windows to allow natural light into the classroom whenever possible can improve the learning environment for autistic students.

Dynamic lighting differs from the usual static lighting that is found in many classrooms. Simply put, dynamic lighting is a form of lighting that changes throughout the day. Using dynamic lighting you can set different lighting “moods” at different times during the day. For example, the lighting in the morning or late afternoon may be set as a “warm” filter to encourage calmness and during work times the light might be set as a “bright” filter to encourage engagement and focus. Having a Dynamic Lighting System would greatly benefit individuals on the spectrum.

One effective method to minimize the negative impact of fluorescent lighting is through the use of fluorescent light filters. These filters are readily available in most school specialty stores and are affordably priced. They work by softening the harsh effects of fluorescent lighting, thereby alleviating stress for those on the autism spectrum. Many teachers with neurotypical and neurodiverse students frequently turn off all the lights in a classroom for a few minutes during the day to help students transition and instill a calm and quiet atmosphere.

Design for a Structured Learning Environment

We know from research that students learn better and remain more focused when the classroom is carefully organized and structured. The placement and organization of furniture in a classroom can positively or negatively affect a student’s ability to move around the space. A structured environment can also provide visual cues for students, indicating specific designated areas within the classroom.

My students are aware of the activities that will take place in my classroom thanks to the way I have organized my furniture. I use a combination of furniture, distinct colors, and dividers to create separate sections in the classroom. By establishing clear boundaries, my students become more self-reliant, and I don’t have to constantly remind them about what they need to do.

When creating a classroom environment for students on the autism spectrum, it’s crucial to select the appropriate furniture. To minimize distractions caused by clutter, cabinets must be present to store materials out of sight. Additionally, furniture should be used to clearly indicate where specific activities occur, aiding students in understanding their surroundings.

The UNC TEACCH program, known for its effectiveness in helping students with autism, recommends the use of workstations to promote task focus and engagement. Workstations typically include storage shelves that facilitate organized storage of a student’s work and encourage independence.

To better accommodate neurodivergent students, it would be advantageous to incorporate partitions or dividers when designing a classroom. These dividers can facilitate the creation of adaptable spaces. Personally, I use partitions to signify when the play area is off-limits, which helps my students to comprehend that it is currently unavailable.

Design for Flexibility

To meet the sensory needs of students on the spectrum, it is beneficial to provide flexible seating options. This allows students to choose how they engage in lessons and promotes a more inclusive learning environment. Fortunately, there are many flexible seating options available that are specifically designed to cater to the needs of neurodivergent students.

Wobble stools are a great way for students to stay active while learning. They promote core strength, balance, and good posture, which are important for overall health. Additionally, they encourage active engagement, which can help students learn better. For students on the spectrum, the gentle rocking motion of a wobble stool can provide a calming effect. Wobble stools are available in a range of sizes and colors, making them a versatile option for any classroom.

In my classroom, I incorporate stability balls as a type of flexible seating. Not only do these balls promote good posture and core strength, but they also provide students with the opportunity to receive sensory input through bouncing.

Floor seating is a popular option, especially for younger students. Many children prefer sitting on the floor while learning. To make the experience more comfortable, it is recommended to consider purchasing bean bags and sensory cushions as part of your floor seating options. These items can be used to enhance lesson engagement or provide a relaxing break for students.

Design Using Appropriate Technologies

Visual cues and methods of communication can be highly beneficial for individuals with autism. Investing in a program like Boardmaker, designed specifically to create visuals for those with special needs, is crucial. This program, created by Tobiidynavox, should be utilized in all classrooms that support individuals on the spectrum. Additionally, using a laminator can help ensure that the created materials are durable and long-lasting.

Incorporating tablets in the classroom can serve as an effective means of enhancing communication among individuals with autism. These devices can function as high-tech assistive technology, enabling students to express themselves more easily. Additionally, tablets can be utilized to reinforce and solidify the concepts and lessons taught in class.

Designing a classroom suitable for individuals on the spectrum requires careful consideration of various factors. It is important to prioritize the comfort and freedom of choice of neurodivergent children when creating an optimal learning environment.

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Works Cited

Alberto, H. a. (2001). The Effect of a Social Stories Intervention on The Social Skills of Male Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sage Publishing.

Branigan-Pipe. (2016). 21st Century Learning, 20th Century Classroom . Candian Education Association.

Hurth, S. I. (1999). Areas of Agreement about Effective Practices Among Programs Serving Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Infants and Young Children, 9.

Laike, K. a. (1998 ). The Impact of Flicker from Fluorescent Lighting on Well-Being, Performance, and Physiological Arousal. Ergonomics.

Tatiana Curry is an experienced teacher with over a decade of work focused on children with autism spectrum disorder. She holds a Master’s degree in Childhood Education and Students with Disabilities from Mercy College and lives in New York with her husband and two boys. In her leisure time, Tatiana loves to write, run, read, travel, and most importantly, spend quality time with her family. She also keeps herself updated with the latest research in autism apectrum disorders.