Adapted from: P. Kluth (2010). “You’re Going to Love This Kid!”: Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom (Rev. ed.). Baltimore: Brookes.
Sometimes students with autism are unsuccessful in school because they are uncomfortable or feel unsafe or even afraid in their educational environment. Providing an appropriate learning environment can be as central to a student’s success as any teaching strategy or educational tool. Students with autism will be the most prepared to learn in places where they can relax and feel secure. In order to create environments most conducive to learning for students with autism and their peers without disabilities, teachers may need to examine ways in which classroom spaces are organized. Specifically, teachers may need to consider the sounds, smells, lighting, and seating options in the classrooms.
SoundsSome students with autism will not only struggle with sounds most of us view as annoying (e.g., car alarms, sandpaper on wood), but may also react negatively to sounds most of us would ignore or fail to notice (e.g., the whirring of a ceiling fan). Students might also react negatively to a sound most find pleasant while failing to react at all to the banging of a door or the scream of a siren. Wendy Robinson, the mother of a young man with autism, remembers how stunned she was at her son’s uneven reactions to sounds:
One evening he was seated on my lap on the hall floor while [his brother] bounced and punched a very large balloon around him. Suddenly the balloon burst by Grant’s side which sent my heart into a flutter. However, Grant did not flinch or even turn his head to the noise. Later, when I had my electric whisk in operation, he ran screaming from the kitchen and I had to stop what I was doing to find and console him. He had the same reaction to the Hoover and other loud electrical equipment. (Robinson, 1999, p. 43)One of the ways teachers can help students cope with sounds is to simply talk to families about which sounds are hardest for the learner. For example, if Grant Robinson’s teachers knew about his fear of sounds related to vacuum cleaners and electrical equipment, they would think twice before signing him up for a woodworking course and could be sure to keep him away from things like the electric pencil sharpener and stapler.
Consider these additional ideas for helping students deal with sounds:
- Once a disturbing sound has been discovered, helping the student can be as simple as moving her as far away as possible from the sound source.
- Try earplugs or headphones for some activities or for use in some parts of the school building (e.g., gymnasium).
- Reduce classroom noise. Echoes and noise can be reduced by installing carpeting. Remnants can often be obtained from a carpet store at a low cost. Some teachers cut tennis balls open and place them on the bottoms of chair or desk legs; this adaptation muffles the sounds created when furniture is shuffled (Grandin, 1998).
- Can the sound be changed? For instance, if a student cringes when he hears clapping, students could develop another system of appreciation for celebrations, and assemblies. If whistles hurt a student’s ears, the physical education teacher might agree to use a megaphone, bell, music, buzzer, or hand signal to start and stop activities.
- Prepare the student for the sound. If the teacher knows the school bell is about to ring the student can be cued to plug his ears or simply be told to “get ready”.
- Allow students to listen to soft music using headsets in noisy or chaotic environments or play soft music (e.g., classical) for all students at times.
- Many students have effective ways of coping with problematic sounds. Some learners, for example, will concentrate on an object or scribble on paper when they are bothered by sounds. Pay attention to these strategies and avoid interfering with them, if possible. While a student’s coping mechanisms may not be apparent to all, teachers should be open to the possibility that behaviors such as hand flapping and finger flicking may be helpful to the learner.
Music can also be used as a teaching tool and as a curricular adaptation to support the learning of students with autism. Many students with autism report finding solace and joy in music. Wendy Lawson, a woman with autism, reports her relationship to music in this way:
Tunes and music or a gentle low-pitched voice can temporarily relieve moments of fear and anxiety. You’ll still catch me humming, singing, whistling, and even talking out loud in an attempt to dispel confusion or unease due to change. The strategy enables me to think and calm down. (Lawson, 1998, p. 4)
SmellsWhile a person without autism might associate a few smells—chalkdust, peanut butter, new-crayon—with schools, some individuals with autism associate dozens or hundreds of smells with schools. A student with a heightened sensory system may take in several different smells in just a few moments—the wet shoes of a classmate, the icing on a cupcake, the odor of a musty locker, the dirty shavings in the hamster cage, the teacher’s hair gel, and the rubber cement glue being opened across the classroom.
School smells that may bother students with autism include personal care products of teachers and other students (e.g., perfume), paint and other art products, school supplies (e.g., “smelly” stickers, chalk), cleaning agents, class pet odors, and plants. Teachers can take a few precautions and minimize the impact of some of the smells that are often problematic for learners with autism:
- Many individuals with autism report that perfume and other personal products cause problems. If a student seems to avoid a particular person or if she will only interact with that person occasionally, consider that the student may be reacting to that person’s perfume, lotion, hair gel, after shave, cologne, or shampoo. If a student is very sensitive to these types of smells, teachers and other professionals working in the classroom should avoid-as much as possible-the use of products with heavy smells.
- Food smells are incredibly distracting for some students with autism. One of my former students could smell a sweet treat two classrooms down from ours. While he loved the smell of baked goods, once he smelled them he could not focus on his work. In order to support him, all teachers in our hallway agreed to serve birthday treats at the very end of the school day. Parents agreed to bring all treats to the office and the school secretary offered to hold our brownies, cookies, and cakes until 2:45 in the afternoon.
- In rooms that have strong smells (e.g., art room, cafeteria, science lab), students might be seated near the door or an open window. Or a student might use a small personal fan to minimize the impact of the smell.
LightingSome individuals with autism have incredible sensitivity to light. Liane Holliday Willey (1999), a woman with Asperger’s syndrome, describes this sensitivity as “impossible to bear” at times:
Bright lights, mid-day sun, reflected lights, strobe lights, flickering lights, fluorescent lights; each seemed to sear my eyes…my head would feel tight, my stomach would churn, and my pulse would run my heart ragged until I found a safety zone. (p. 26)Florescent lighting, the most common lighting used in classrooms, can impact learning, behavior, and the comfort level of students with autism. In order to determine whether or not florescent lights are problematic for students in your classroom, you may want to turn off the overhead lighting for a few days to see if the change seems to impact the student. If the lighting does seem to be a concern for the student, you may need to experiment with different ways of using light:
- Try lower levels of light, if possible.
- In classrooms with several windows, try using natural lighting for part of the day.
- Use upward projecting rather than downward projecting lighting.
- Experiment with different types of lighting. Turn on the front bank of lights, but not the back or turn on alternating banks of lights. In one classroom, teachers strung white holiday lights around their whiteboards and chalkboards and plugged night lights into different sockets in order to give the classroom a more calm and peaceful feeling.
- Try different colors of light, experiment with a pink or yellow lamp in a corner of the room.
- Replace fluorescents with incandescent bulbs.
- Some students find the use of sunglasses helpful. Glasses might be worn during recess or can even be tried indoors (especially near florescent lighting). A baseball cap can also help students avoid direct exposure to light.
- Move the student’s seat. Sometimes the problem is not the lights themselves, but the reflection of light on a wall or other surface.
- Florescent bulbs tend to flicker more as they age. If florescent lights must be used, the newest bulbs possible should be installed.
- Some students find that it is particularly difficult to use white paper under florescent lights. Students may be bothered by the glare off of the paper. Using colored overlays can minimize or eliminate the glare.
- Some students are more distracted by the sound than by the sight of florescent lighting. In these cases, the student may want to use ear plugs while studying. Or a student may find relief by simply moving away from the lights and the noise.
SeatingFor some students having comfortable classroom furniture is critical to their learning success. One of my former students couldn’t sit in a desk for more than a few minutes but he could sit in a beanbag chair for forty minutes at a time. We soon purchased several beanbag chairs for the school (a few for the library, two for the music room, a handful for hallways) so that this student could be at ease throughout the day and so that all students could occasionally enjoy a change in seating.
Not every student with autism will need or like the feeling of a beanbag chair. In most cases, finding appropriate seating is a matter of trial and error. Another one of my former students, Kelly, seemed unable to settle into his metal desk, but he did not respond to our beanbag chairs or to the rocking chair we kept in the back of the room or to the pillow pile we kept in the “living room” area of the classroom. After experimenting with many different chairs, materials, and strategies, we finally found that Kelly could sit for over an hour at a time if we tied a cushion of woven wooden beads (the type you often see in taxicabs) to the back of his chair.
Having a few different seating options in the classroom can potentially boost the educational experiences of all learners. Seating that may appeal to learners with and without autism include:
- Rocking chairs, lawn chairs, old car seats;
- Seat cushions (the type that can be tied on to the chair are only a dollar or two at discount stores);
- Reading pillows;
- Floor/exercise mats (individual mats can be made cheaply by sewing newspapers in between sheets of vinyl) or floor pillows (also easy to make with stuffing from fabric store and a few yards of material);
- Couches, loveseats, arm chairs or large footstools; and
Some students (with and without autism) may also prefer to sit on the floor for some part of the day. Students who prefer to sit on the floor or in chair without a desk, can work on clipboards or use lap desks. Beanbag lap desks can be purchased commercially for a few dollars. Some students appreciate using a lap desk with more weight; for these learners, simply cut the material, drain the soft beanbag material out, and replace it with sand or another similar substance. Many students appreciate the input provided by the heavier material.
Some students may also want to stand instead of sit for some part of the day. These students can be provided with a lectern and a desk near the back of the classroom and they can alternate between the two as needed.
ReferencesAtwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s syndrome. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.
Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures. New York: Vintage Books.
Lawson, W. (1998). Life behind glass. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.
Robinson, W. (1999). Gentle giant. The inspiring story of an autistic child. Boston: Element.
Shore, S. (2001). Beyond the wall. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing.
Willey, L. (1999). Pretending to be normal. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.