How Does the Learning Environment Affect Children with Autism?

One reason that special education schools exist is that children with autism, especially those who also have intellectual conditions or other co-morbidities, often struggle in the regular classroom environment. Special needs classes take into account the specific requirements of these children so they can learn more effectively in a space where they feel comfortable.

Factors for special education schools to consider


Classrooms can be loud and busy places, full of people moving and talking, with colorful posters, interesting objects and all sorts of potential distractions. To children with autism, many of whom may have sensory processing issues, this can be overwhelming. Special needs classes may need to make attempts to calm the space down, perhaps by thinking carefully about the color scheme or setting aside quiet times/spaces (such as a separate corner or even the room next door) where they can escape for a moment, or by storing resources out of sight until needed.

Personal Space

Issues with social interaction are a major feature of autism, and many children will feel uncomfortable having to sit too close to other students. Ensuring each student has their own area of personal space where they can feel in control may make it easier for them to focus and reduce the risk of anxiety. This may mean ensuring the classroom has clearly defined boundaries and dividers so everyone knows their place and does not accidentally intrude on others.

Alternative methods of communication

Communication is another area in which children with autism may struggle. That includes both how they process the information they receive from others and the way they express themselves. Some are comfortable speaking; others may prefer to use pictures or signs. Technology often allows an effective alternative to traditional communication methods. Teachers should be aware of these different ways of communicating and ensure that their classroom space can facilitate all possible approaches, making sure that flashcards, computers and other equipment are readily available.

Structure and labeling

One way to ensure children with autism feel safe is to ensure that they are in a structured environment where everything has its correct place and time. Repetition and routine are key. Children with autism often find change difficult to manage and benefit from a well-defined schedule so they know exactly what is happening at all times. Making sure that all classroom resources have their own drawers or shelves that are clearly labeled can also help the space feel more controlled, which will enable students to feel more in control themselves.

Motor skills

Children with autism may experience physical difficulties with coordination, balance and other aspects of motor skills. This may affect their handwriting, their ability to use other classroom equipment such as scissors or computer keyboards, or simply how they move around the classroom. Ensure the space is not too crowded so they have room to maneuver and be patient in activities that involve fine motor skills. Where possible, find alternative equipment or approaches.

Every aspect of the learning environment can affect a child with autism, so special needs classes need to consider all possible sources of sensory stimulation, the layout of the space, the use of different equipment and technology and a range of other factors.

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