Some kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have sensory integration issues. Noise, visual distractions, bright lights, certain smells and sensitivity to temperature and texture can divert their attention from the task at hand and make learning difficult.
If you have ASD students in your classroom, it’s important to be aware of these sensory issues. Some of the very things that often bring a classroom to life are, in fact, the most detrimental to these young learners. Here’s what to keep in mind.
A dripping faucet, a buzzing fluorescent light bulb, noise from the heat register or the whirl of a ceiling fan can all become the focus of an autistic student. Sounds from other students and environmental factors, like rain and wind, can also detract from the student’s ability to learn.
Earplugs or headphones can help block out distracting noise and increase their engagement. According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Resource Center, some students may want to listen to soft music, white noise or nature sounds, like ocean waves, to help them relax.
Reduce them as much as possible. While natural light is preferred to fluorescent lighting, students can be distracted by the view outside the window. Translucent window shades can allow the light while limiting the view. See if students respond better by using incandescent lamps instead of any ceiling lights.
Keep walls free of any posters, drawings, etc., with the exception of visual schedules or other learning aids. White boards and chalkboards should be kept clean and free of writing/pictures when not in use. Walls should be painted in soft, neutral colors. Limit the number of visuals hanging from the ceiling or the walls, recommends the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.
Different smells can also distract ASD students, and often set off reactions that are difficult to contain and calm. AutismSpeaks.org recommends that strong room deodorizers, fragrances and heavily scented cleaning products be avoided. However, lightly scented candles, lotions and liquid soap might have a calming effect.
Physical sensitivity to different textures is common in autistic kids. They may refuse to sit on the carpet in circle time because they don’t like the feel of the fibers, for example. Have kids sit on wiggle cushions or beanbags as an alternative to carpet. Be prepared to make changes as the classroom population changes every year.