Creating an Optimal Learning Environment for Your Child with Autism

Having a basic understanding of autism can help parents and caregivers design both physical and social environments that can support children in their learning process. Below is a brief overview of some of the research about the brains of people with autism. Then you’ll find five easy and practical tips that you can use to create an optimal learning environment at home.

Autism Basics

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder of brain functioning that is characterized by a lack of normal social interaction, impaired communication and imagination, and a highly restricted range of activities and interests. It usually appears in early childhood around the age of three, and continues to varying degrees throughout life. Autism has no known cure, but improvement, sometimes substantial, can occur as the child gets older. Its onset appears to be preceded by abnormal brain growth, such as a small head size at birth followed by a sudden and excessive spurt in size during the first year. Four out five autistic children are boys, possibly because of girls’ greater early sensitivity to social stimuli. Also, about three out of four are mentally retarded.

Environmental factors, such as exposure to certain viruses or chemicals, may trigger an inherited tendency toward autism. Certain complications during pregnancy, such as major stress during the 24th to 28th weeks of pregnancy may deform the developing brain.

Children with mild forms of autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome, usually have normal or even higher verbal intelligence, are more curious, and have greater academic achievement. However, they have limited, fixed interests, repetitive speech and behavior almost to the point of having OCD, and have difficulty understanding social and emotional cues. The result of this is that all stimuli are given equal priority by the brains of those with autism, causing an overwhelming flood of sensory information that the child must handle. The brains of typical children learn to filter out irrelevant stimuli early on in life, so by the time that they go to school, children are able to focus their attention on what they are asked to focus on. It is very hard for many children with autism to learn in environments where there is a lot of competing sensory information (including noises, sights, touches, smells, etc.) such as a classroom.

Research involving people with autism ranging from studies of how individual brain cells are connected to how people perform in psychological tests paints a picture of the world occupied by those with autism as fragmented, overwhelming and filled with “noise”. This is corroborated by autobiographical reports from people with autism. Understanding the autistic child’s fragmented and overwhelming world shows how important a child’s external environment is when designing treatment and education for children with autism. It also explains why children with autism crave order and predictability in their physical environments.

Physical environments with higher amounts of sensory stimulation (e.g. bright visual displays, background noise, etc.) will add to the “noise” in an already overloaded sensory system making any new learning extremely challenging–like trying to learn Japanese in a shopping mall. The extent to which rooms can be tailored to meet the needs of these children is highly limited in a typical classroom setting, mainly due to the presence of other children and the subsequent size of the room. Even fluorescent lighting has been shown to affect the behavior of children with autism. These environmental considerations are either overlooked and their importance underestimated when placements are suggested for children with autism or it is beyond the scope of the school district to provide any other type of physical environment.

Create an Optimal Learning Environment for Your Child with Autism

Experts suggest five things that you should do to ensure that your child has the appropriate environment in which to learn.  Here is what you should do:

  1. Dedicate a special room in your home to children with autism. It could be any room; the most important thing is it is solely for that child.
  2. Remove all electronic toys that can distract their attention in that room. This includes video-games, televisions and the rest.
  3. Make use of incandescent light bulbs in place of fluorescents. This is because the flickering of fluorescent bulbs can be very distracting to people with autism.
  4. Decrease the amount of toys available in that room; possibly place them out of reach.
  5. Lastly, schedule comprehensive learning windows and try to assist them through the whole learning process.

Having a basic understanding of autism can help parents and caregivers design both physical and social environments that can support children in their learning process. By simply observing your child, you can be empowered to create an optimal environment for that child with autism by adapting both the physical and social environments to their strengths.

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