Dr Stephen Shore is a professor of special education who is himself Autistic. He is famous for saying, “If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.” What he means is that each person with Autism presents in their own different way, just like every single one of us. It is possible that an Autistic child or young person might find some of the more traditional design, furniture or equipment in schools and colleges harder to cope with. But, a little creative thinking has the power to transform the learning experience for all of us.
Learning Spaces - Subdividing rooms into solo workstations works better for some children on the Autistic Spectrum. A conventional school desk surrounded on three sides by partitions might help with focus. Movable furniture also offers a flexible alternative to traditional forward-facing tables or desks and can easily be used to create small group environments for teaching just two or three students at a time.
Sensory-friendly spaces - Many people with Autism become overloaded by too much sensory stimulation. Things that others may not even notice, such as bright lights, a noisy environment, changing temperature, a light breeze or a gentle touch might quickly escalate into an anxious mood. Thinking about blinds at the windows, removing old fluorescent lighting, installing acoustic wall and ceiling tiles and keeping walls plain and in calming colours can help manage sensory defensiveness. Sectioning off a quiet area with soft cushions and curved corners can also help calm some young people with Autism. Incorporate these ideas into mainstream classes and transform the whole school into a welcoming and inclusive education setting for all ages and abilities.
Don’t be afraid to ask the question - Sometimes we are so determined to go ahead and ‘do something’ that we forget to do the most obvious thing – ask the student with Autism what would be the most helpful for them. If a young person is willing and/or able to share their ideas, they are best placed to suggest the simple adaptations to existing furniture and equipment which will enable them to relax and concentrate. If they are unable to communicate, then others who know them well may be able to contribute some thoughts, or an inventive teacher may be able to experiment. For instance, does the child like to rock in their chair? How can that be managed? Perhaps a simple trick such as fastening a thick elastic rope across the front of the chair legs might give the student something to ‘kick against’. Do they have trouble writing? Try putting a writing slope on their desk and see if it helps with fine motor coordination.
One thing is for sure, if you want to foster concentration and develop learning in students with Autism, you need to start off by thinking in fresh ways about your classroom spaces and the equipment and furniture you use. You might be surprised how small changes can make a whole world of difference.