Teachers often take a great deal of pride in the way they decorate their classrooms. They spend their free time developing decoration ideas and collecting items to make their sensory rooms look and feel welcoming to children.
But, what happens to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when they enter brightly colored classrooms with numerous posters and pictures on the walls competing for their attention? For a child with autism, who is already overly sensitive to visual and auditory stimuli, walking into a classroom covered with bright colors and multiple graphics can create sensory overload.
Lynn McCann, an autism education specialist and teacher, compared that scenario to an adult who is in a busy foreign train station. The individual knows he/she needs to get somewhere but does not know how to read the language on the ticket or the signs in the station. It is loud, noisy, and people are pushing past while shouting in a language he/she does not understand.
The adult is sick with anxiety and frustration and has no idea how to cope. This is how school can feel for a child on the spectrum, according to McCann.
In a sensory-friendly classroom, the sights, sounds, and scents must be controlled to avoid over- or under-stimulating students—especially those with special needs. Students with sensory issues can be easily overwhelmed by factors such as sounds, colors, textures, or temperatures, which can interfere with a child’s ability to learn.
The goal of a sensory-friendly classroom is to create a space where children with autism feel safe and comfortable, while at the same time, allowing them to be attentive—a space that promotes learning.
When creating a sensory-friendly classroom, there are three key elements to consider: colors, lighting, and organization of the room.
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The average classroom is way too “busy.” There are too many items on the wall, too many bright colors and too many distractions. These “busy” classrooms will almost always cause sensory overload in children with sensory issues. While it may be counter-intuitive to some teachers, the optimal classroom for children on the autism spectrum is unembellished, or bare.
The walls, tables, and chairs should be neutral colors. Keep wall décor to a minimum. A simple calendar or daily schedule offers the structure ASD children crave while minimizing the likelihood of sensory overload.
Lighting is also important. Some children experience such extreme sensory overload caused by lighting that they wear sunglasses or sun visors inside. To help students with this level of sensitivity, using LED lights rather than fluorescent lights can create a more natural feel. In other instances, placing colored tint over the panels helps to dim the light.
The layout and ambiance of a classroom can also impact a child’s ability to learn. Classrooms divided into sections for specific purposes can help keep children on task, as they associate the areas with the identified tasks. Teachers should be aware of the overall noise level and other ambient noises in the classroom that may be present and creating issues for a child.
For example, teachers should also be cognizant of minor sound irritations like a creaky chair or desk that needs to be repaired and prevented to avoid irritating children with sensitivities. evaded
The addition of some sensory-friendly items is just as important as eliminating those that can cause sensory overload. Some inexpensive items can help soothe children with autism. For example, painting a piece of plywood and bolting on items from a hardware store—a door chain, hinges, light switches, locks, latches, etc., creates a simple fidget toy.
Silicone muffin pans are also an excellent choice for a sensory-friendly classroom because they are soft and pliable. Include a variety of items, such as fidget spinners, stress balls with different textures, or even popup tents to create a space for children who need a short break from classroom activities.
There is not a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to creating a sensory-friendly classroom. Classrooms will vary based on location, budget, and needs of the students, but teachers can get ahead of any sensory-related meltdowns by assessing their classrooms and recognizing what could potentially cause sensory issues.
This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies