A safe environment is crucial for human beings to be able to strive and unlock their creativity and their imagination. From the classroom to the workplace, we all need a safe, secure, pleasant environment where we can focus on the task at hand and reach our full potential. Just imagine trying to read a book or to write a creative essay in a busy cafe or a crowded, noisy open office. It won’t work, because too many distractions and sensory overload can hinder creativity and productivity.
For students with autism, the challenge of getting the classroom environment right can be a daunting one. Children with autistic spectrum disorders can be easily distracted and overwhelmed by too much stimulation, be it too much noise, too many people, and even too many colors or too much clutter. Sensory overload can trigger their anxiety and put them in a hyper-anxious state of mind, so teachers need to find ways to accommodate students with autism so that they perform their best and feel safe in the classroom. But how should they go about it?
Classroom layouts for students with autism
Long gone are the days when classrooms were just a big space filled with chairs and desks and a whiteboard – at least in most parts of the world. Nowadays, teachers and schools try to come up with different layouts that enable all students to perform and feel at ease, regardless of their particular challenges or learning disabilities. From inclusive classrooms to culturally-responsive teaching methods, educators are now applying research-driven strategies that are proven to promote inclusivity, diversity, and academic performance. There is also a much greater emphasis on a child’s emotional development and their mental health in the classroom, and this also includes focusing on how the physical environment can impact mental health.
Children with autism can become quickly overwhelmed in the classroom, where they’re flooded with visual and auditory cues. That’s why it’s crucial to design the classroom in a way that promotes productivity, creativity, and security. This can be achieved by dividing the space into smaller areas that serve a specific purpose, be it reading, writing, snacking, taking a break, or playing. These are some areas that can be designed and included within the classroom:
- Group activity area – Where the educator teaches a lesson and where students take tests or watch educational videos;
- Reading and writing area – a small, quiet area with no distractions, where small groups of students can do reading and writing tasks without interruption; this is also an area where books and other materials can be stored and where children can peruse them in silence – think of a vibe similar to a quiet public library;
- Tech area – a small area where children have access to computers or laptops and can use available devices for a specific task;
- Teacher’s area – this is where the teacher has their desk and where they sit and do their work; it should be an area that’s separate from the student areas, but at the same time, the teacher should have a clear viewpoint of all the students in different areas;
- Break / snack area – a small area where children can sit and have lunch or a snack, or take breaks, talking and playing together; this will probably become the noisiest area in the classroom, so it shouldn’t be placed right next to the quiet reading/writing area or individual work spaces;
- Individual work spaces – two or three quiet desks where children can retreat to do focused work on their own, or to cool down after socializing or interacting with other students; children with autism often feel overwhelmed by too much interaction and stimulation, and they benefit from taking short breaks where they can cool down and recharge. This is not a place to send ‘naughty’ students, but an area where children can go voluntarily when they feel they need some alone time or can’t focus in the common areas.
Useful tips & tricks for designing an autism-friendly classroom
Not every classroom will be spacious enough to include all of the different areas we mentioned above, but there are always ways of incorporating different spaces to accommodate students with autism disorders. It’s important to establish physical or visual boundaries to separate these areas, either by placing pieces of furniture strategically, or by using carpets and rugs. This way, you’re providing visual cues to students that these areas serve different purposes, and this will make it less overwhelming for them. As a result, students with autism will exert less effort trying to figure out their surroundings, and they can focus more on the lessons being taught or the tasks they need to work on.
Research shows that children with autism have stronger visual skills than auditory skills, so it’s important to make the best of available visual cues that might make it easier for them to navigate the classroom. For instance, you can use visual cues like signs to show children where they need to put their things, where they need to sit, and direct them towards different areas of the classroom, so that they don’t have to struggle to figure it out on their own.
What’s more, to avoid students running into each other or creating ‘traffic jams,’ try to arrange everything and set up all the signs in a clockwise direction, so that the students can move seamlessly from one area to the next, without bumping into each other and getting confused. People suffering from autism disorders are easily distracted and they can lose focus very quickly, so it’s important to keep things as organized as possible to make sure that students in the classroom can focus and thrive.
These are just some simple things that teachers and educators can try to incorporate in their classrooms, to better accommodate the needs of students with autism. This organization and ‘flow’ will also benefit the other students in the classroom, and help them focus on lessons and exercises without being distracted or having to worry about their environment. The end result will greatly impact students with autism, and help them reach their academic potential, but ultimately, everyone will get to benefit from a safe, secure, and organized classroom environment.
If you want to learn more about designing classrooms for students with different learning disabilities, or want additional information about teaching methods and inclusive classrooms, feel free to reach out to us at Da Vinci Collaborative. Let’s work together to create inclusive classrooms for everyone, regardless of their challenges.