3) How can spaces be calming for children with autism and learning disabilities?

Rand Jasim is an interior designer based in Manchester, with an interest in how the design of public spaces can positively influence psychology and behaviour. Her graduate thesis looked specifically at designing spaces for children with autism and learning difficulties, and how space can positively influence their ability to learn. We are thrilled to be able to publish an excerpt of this research. Rand has shared with us some of the key factors to consider when creating accessible spaces. If you would like to read further her full paper can be accessed here.


Rand Jasim
August 2020

Learning disability is a general term for  a wide range of disorders including authority processing disorder, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyslexia, language processing disorder, non-verbal learning disabilities and visual perception. Moreover, there are other number of related disorders that may affect the learning process involving ADHD, dyspraxia and executive functioning (Learning Disabilities Association of America, 2013). While autism is a lifelong growing disability that influence the way individuals identify the world, interacting with others, being anxious about unfamiliar situations, repetitive behaviours as well as taking longer to understand information. Autistic individuals have sensitive senses, hear and sight in particular. Autism is a spectrum and each individual suffer from different degrees of difficulties. A significant amount of autistic individuals suffer from learning disabilities (National Autistic Society, 2016). According to Autistica, 4 in 10 autistic individuals suffer from learning disabilities.
This part of population is ordinarily disregarded in design and building regulations which is a major matter of concern since these individuals get influenced by the physical environment more than any others, therefore more attention by architects and interior designers should be paid when designing spaces to give them equivalent rights as negative behaviours traditionally occur when an individual cannot adapt or understand their environment (Kristi et al., 2016).

Which will lead to “Imbalance between the environment and an individual’s ability to adapt to it” (Sanchez, P., Vasquez, F., Serrano, L., 2011).

Since each case varies from one to another, being inclusive in planning and designing spaces can be challenging.  However, it is the job of architects and interior designers to find procedures and techniques that own a balance between meeting the necessities of these individuals while remaining realistic with their designs to prepare them for external life challenges and difficulties.

There are four main types that affect individuals with autism and learning disabilities in the physical environment.

1.    Acoustics
According to the authors of Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorder book, one of the sensitivities of children with autism and learning disabilities is the inability to regulate volumes. They can be particularly sensitive to, pitch which can be defined as how high or low the sound is, loudness  which is the intensity of sound, reverberation which is  defined as the amount of time a sound remains in a space before it decreases to an unnoticeable level. Finally, signal to noise ratio which means the difference between the decibel level of the voice of the speaker subtracting the background noise.

These factors should be taken into consideration when designing for children with autism and learning disabilities as they are negatively affected by background noise more than others.

Controlling noise can be beneficial when noted during the planning step of design and construction.  Materials are a significant part of design, therefore using hard surfaces in floors, walls and ceilings should be obviated in order to reduce background noise since these surfaces are serious contributors to reverberation. In addition, sound-absorbing panels may be installed over drywall as well as suspending them from ceilings.

Other ways of reducing noise can be implemented by adopting sound-absorbing materials during construction. For example wood can absorb sound more than laminate. Adding curtains and wall-mounted cork boards is another solution.

2.    Lighting
In regards to lighting in a space, Christopher Beaver states in the “Designing Environments for Children and Adults with ASD” article that flickering florescent lighting increase the sensitivity of children with autism. Lighting should be fitted with suitable diffusers.

Similarly, Emily Long stated in a  research  about lighting design for children with autism in the classroom that florescent lights are commonly used in traditional learning environments which can be a significant source of trigger for pupils with autism. The flickering lighting of fluorescent stimulates and triggers symptoms of the spectrum.

As a solution, Emily suggests to use alternative light sources, for example, incandescent lamps.

Additionally, a change on behaviour was also observed on children in general and children with learning disabilities in particular when florescent lighting was used. For example, the combination of blue colour and florescent lighting led to  9% lowering of blood pressure in six-year old students. It was also observed that the quality of lighting is directly linked to the motivation of learning children in general.

Furthermore, in a comparison between warm white and cool white lighting, children with hyperactivity were observed to be more attentive when warm white lighting was used.

3.  Colour
In addition to acoustics and lighting, colour plays a significant role with the influence on the behaviour of children with autism and learning disabilities.

Children with autism tend to see colours more vibrant than others. Researchers have found that 85% of autistic children saw colours with greater vibrance and intensity which will lead to increase in sensitivity and headaches. Using complex patterns and vibrant colours on surfaces can inflict destruction in autistic children.  As a solution, studies have shown that using neutral and earth-toned colours with simple to no patterns can decrease the sensitivity and emotion balance as well as appropriate behaviour of autistic children. It is also suggested to use a calm and muted version of the child’s favourite colour (Anous, I., 2015).

Similarly, a study that has been submitted to University of Edinburgh states that using neutral colours with plain patterns will improve the quality of life of autistic children. It is also suggested to use muted colours in classrooms can help pupils with autism to increase concentration. Moreover, the colour green has also been proven to be a calming colour on children with autism.

4.    Spatial Configurations
Finally, spatial configuration is also an essential point to take into consideration when designing spaces. It is not only essential to build spaces that are functional but it is as important to consider the psychological effects and needs of each individual.

Individuals with autism and children in particular find it harder to adopt and remember spaces therefore it is suggested that spaces are planned with definition and coordination. For example, one-way and sequential patterns of pattern circulation brace routine and improves concentration. Moreover, each room should be subdivided for each activity will further encourage focus and concentration. A study done by Hirasawa, Fujiwara and Yamane (2009), proved that children with autism have performed less repetitive and negative behaviours when classrooms and spaces have been readjusted and subdivided to improve the comprehension of task sequence.

Planning a small or big room can be subjective to each individual therefore flexible spaces can be a solution. Furthermore, subdividing spaces can be achieved by colour coordination. For example, walls can be painted in different colours for each activity.

Rand Jasim

  1. Anous, I (2015) The Impact of Interior Design in Education Spaces for Children with Autism. Vol 10, p 100.
  2. Barret, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., Barret, L. (2015) The Impact of Classroom Design on Pupils’ Learning: Results of a Holistic, Multi-Level Analysis, Building and Environment. Vol 89, pp, 122-128.
  3. Eaton (N.D.) Optimising lighting in schools for students with specific learning disabilities and ADHD [Online] Available at: https://www.eaton.com/us/en-us/company/news-insights/lighting-resource/design/optimizing-lighting-schools-learning-disabilities-adhd.html [Accessed on 14th November, 2019].
  4. Gaines, K., Bourne, A., Pearson, M., Kleibrink, M. (2016) Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorder. New York: Routledge, p.3, pp71-76.
  5. Learning Disabilities Association of America (2013) Types of Learning Disabilities [Online] Available at: https://ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/ [Accessed on 31st October, 2019].
  6. National Association of Special Education Teachers (N.D.) Introduction to Learning Disabilities [Online] Available at:https://www.naset.org/index.php?id=2522 [Accessed on 31st October, 2019].
  7. Sanchez, P., Vasquez, F., Serrano, L. (2011) Autism and the Build Environment [PDF] Available at: https://www.intechopen.com/books/autism-spectrum-disorders-from-genes-to-environment/autism-and-the-built-environment[Accessed on 31st October, 2019].
  8. Tuckett, P., Marchant, R., Jones, M. (2004) Cognitive impairment, access and the built environment [Online] Available at: https://projectartworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/close-to-the-wall.pdf [Accessed on 20th November, 2019]