Turning Down the Volume: Helping Kids with Autism Learn in a Quieter Classroom

The Problem

The sound in classrooms can be extra distracting for kids on the autism spectrum. The acoustic environment has a significant impact on today's population of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in school. They often have co-morbid conditions, including noise sensitivity and other environmental sensitivities. They hear noises as overpowering and do not adapt to them neurologically over time or readily apply previously acquired mental models to novel and unfamiliar events. This causes sensory overstimulation. Children with ASD commonly exhibit recurrent behaviors that indicate distress in response to this kind of overload, such as striking, covering their ears, making loud noises, blinking their eyes, and other repetitive motor actions. As you can imagine, symptoms of sensory overload can be quite stressful and significantly hinder learning.

Two recent studies demonstrate the crucial role of acoustics for ASD. Although it is difficult to conduct studies on ASD in young children as it might be harmful to them (e.g., sensory overload), scientists have found ways to investigate without harm by examining how kids are influenced in real-world educational environments through the use of teacher and parent reports.

Bettarello, Caniato, and Scavuzzo examined comfort in interior spaces along various aspects, including acoustics, thermo-hygrometric, visual, and air quality. They were interested in finding out which environmental element affected ASD the most. They used parent/caregiver reports to gauge how sensitive children and adults were to the aforementioned situations. The results showed that acoustics were the most significant factor, with visual factors coming in second.

Caldas, Masiero, and Wang asked teachers to learn more about the specific acoustic variables that children found most upsetting at school. They found that echoes and air conditioning had the most impact. According to the children in their study, outside noise from things like traffic and other classrooms had the least impact.

What Can You Do?

To address this problem, Bettarello et al. made additional attempts to address this problem by implementing architectural changes such as carpeting and thick walls that improved acoustics. Children were also allowed to create artwork that was then scanned and printed on acoustic panels. Children felt more comfortable and were able to deal with the visual discontinuities of a grid-based acoustic ceiling better when their room was customized and personalized with recognizable pictures. At the back of the room, they also made small, secure spaces for the kids out of sound-absorbing panels.

According to Betarello and colleagues, there needs to be a balance between being too quiet, where hypersensitive kids may feel the need to enhance their sensory stimulation (such as tapping their fingers), and being too loud, where they would need to minimize stimulation. They also stress the importance of putting ASD individuals, and all people, at the center of the design process in inclusive strategies, including those outlined in the research mentioned above. This is a crucial step in ensuring that mainstreaming is accomplished inclusively.

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