Supportive Learning Environments for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Kristen Henriksen
Migette L. Kaup*
Kansas State University


It has been consistently documented that children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) experience difficulty managing the sensory environment due to symptoms and behaviors associated with the disease. Existing literature is examined in order to uncover variables of the built environment that are known to positively or negatively affect the symptoms and behaviors of children diagnosed with ASD. The majority of the existing literature focuses on sensory and spatial issues, while the occurrence of conflicting recommendations serves to magnify the genuine complexity of the disorder. Suggested programming requirements and spatial layouts will aid the interior designer to a certain degree, but due to the scarcity of research that informs the interior designer specifically, new research is conducted in this paper and is combined with data from existing literature to form a matrix of specific design considerations. This will allow designers to utilize the considerations more readily and answer the calling for adaptable, flexible, and thoughtful universal design solutions in the learning environments of children with ASD.


Kopec (2006) defined a learning environment as “a system of complex relationships that exists among the physical structure (size and arrangement of a room), a teacher, and a student” (p. 189). From this description we begin to recognize the school as a physicalenvironment as a well as a highly complex social mechanism. Many of our present-day schools are based upon the “reform concepts” influenced by Germany’s Weimar Republic, from 1919-1933 (Kopec, 2006). The design principles were the first to foster the health and spirit of children and entered the United States by way of “émigré architects” after WWII (Henderson, 1997). Henderson further described the reform as the first notion of the learning environment as an agent of socialization: “Not only did it facilitate a new curriculum, but the philosophy that architecture, itself, can reshape people, that the schools ultimately serve as the incubator of the new citizenry, dictated a more radical approach to the building itself” (p. 33). 

Jean Piaget’s concept of cognitive development in children also transformed the role and, consequently, the design of learning environments in our present-day society (Weinstein & David, 1980). Labinowicz (1980) clarified Piaget’s argument: “children are generally curious and they need to interact readily with materials and people around them” (p. 208). According to traditional Piagetian theory, children learn from social experiences and relationships with their physical environment (Wadsworth, 1971; Peterson & Felton-Collin, 1986). Conventional classrooms exploit this model—the space is traditionally treated as an interactive experience that has the potential to positively impact a child’s development (Weinstein & David, 1987; Kopec, 2006).  Wall (2004) commented that most classrooms in the present day were “brightly coloured [sic], decorated with colourful [sic] displays and busy with sound” (p.80).  This learning environment model is often successful, though it is not the best solution for all children. For example, Wall elaborated that children with exceptional needs can have difficulty functioning in such stimulating environments. 

The common trend of designing the built learning environment is to consider the average child—one that neatly fits within the boundaries of Piagetian studies. Although there is a great amount of research about learning environments and integrating the commonly accepted theories like those of Piaget, one size simply does not fit all. As a practitioner, Wall (2004) offered insight on the diversity of needs present within today’s classroom: “Within my own working practice I have preferred to discuss ‘individual needs’ in a more inclusive way as I consider that all children are simply children. Some are tall, some wear glasses, some have autism, but all are primarily children” (p. 2). The design community must widen its focus from traditional knowledge about the design of learning environments and reach out to the current needs of society through a new segment of universal design. The simple modification of learning environment design principles could enable a learning environment that is more conducive to the unique needs of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)—consequently providing the foundation for autonomy and improved quality of learning.

Today, more than 1.5 million Americans are thought to have some form of Autism (Autism Society, 2009b). The incidence of ASD in our society is escalating due to changes in diagnosing criteria, early diagnoses occurring more frequently, an interest in the services available to those diagnosed, and the possibility that the cause of ASD is due to genetic and biological factors in our ever-changing society (Siegel, 2003). In its Autism 101 course, the Autism Society (2009a) reported that the indications of autism could “occur in any combination and with varying degrees of severity” (p. 4). This suggests that autism is a “spectrum disorder” (Autism Society, 2009a, p. 4). Much debate exists about categorizing the unique varieties of autism, but they are generally referred to as “autistic spectrum disorders,” or ASD (Hanbury, 2005, p. 5).  The symptoms of ASD become apparent from the age of 24 months to six years (Autism Society, 2009a). It is important to remember that each child has a unique condition, therefore each child’s symptoms could seem radically different compared to the next (Flowers, 2002). The answer to this dilemma is a model that encompasses the primary developmental difficulties that are characteristic of ASD—regardless of the specific diagnosis on the spectrum. Today, perhaps the most common model of ASD is “the triad of impairments” first noted by researcher Lorna Wing in 1979 (Hanbury, 2005, p. 2, 11; Wall, 2004, p. 8; Jones & Jordan, 1999, p. 3; Mackenzie, 2008, p. 19; Wolfberg, 2009, p. 18).

The “triad” refers to “social interaction, communication and imagination” (Wolfberg, 2009, p. 18; Jordan & Jones, 1999, p. 4; Hanbury, 2005, p. 11).  Depending on the source of research, the title of each of the impairments may vary. It is necessary for all three impairments to be present before diagnosing ASD’s, but the intensity of each component is unique to the individual (Hanbury, 2005, p. 12; Jones & Jordan, 1999, p. 4). This model also allows flexibility when considering individuals with very diverse situations and needs, whether mild or severe (Hanbury, 2005, p. 12). Other symptoms may occur in the child, but they are not necessary for diagnosis. Some of these symptoms “directly affect the child’s learning, such as communication difficulties, rigidity, sensory issues or problems with organizing thoughts” (Hanbury, 2005, p. 17). Another sector of symptoms involves the “behavior arising from the condition” (p. 17). As interior designers, we should be fundamentally aware of the sensory issues surrounding ASD that Hanbury refered to, as well as the patterns of behavior resulting as the child attempts to cope.

The purpose of this study is to identify opportunities for improving the learning environments of children diagnosed with ASD by uncovering simple solutions and alternatives that have been applied or have been observed to be effective or non-effective by experienced educators of children with autism. The information discovered can be used to inform the configuration of a series of adapted recommendations and/or considerations—intended for use by interior designers and facility managers.  By implementing these considerations, the resulting learning environment could be less exclusively focused on the social and cognitive needs of the “average” child and more conducive to the unique sensory and spatial needs of children with ASD. 

Literature Review

Through a review of literature, seven non-periodical sources were identified for their focus on the learning environment for the child with ASD. These sources were further reviewed and a content analysis was completed to identify global categories with recurring content. The global categories were broken down into discrete variables of the built environment that have a positive or negative effect on children with ASD (see Figure 1, Design Considerations Matrix from Existing Research, downloadable XLS Spreadsheet).

The “Design Considerations Matrix” is intended to communicate the relationship between a specific symptom or behavior and the ability of the built environment to support the need of the symptom or behavior. ASD is a complex disorder; therefore, children with ASD have unique symptoms and behaviors on the spectrum. Digressing from this singularity, there is potential for universal design solutions that will benefit a large population of children with ASD. One interesting finding from existing research is that some symptoms and behaviors tend to be more commonly represented than others. The majority of the research findings deal with the implication of micro-level sensory issues—visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic and olfactory—and macro-level spatial issues that deal with the organization and programming of the environment itself.

Findings on Sensory Issues

At the micro-level in the classroom, children with ASD commonly experience difficulty managing their sensory environment, though it is interesting to note that this is not a deciding symptom for diagnosis, according to the “triad of impairments” (Hanbury, 2005; Myler, Fantacone, & Merritt, 2005; Wall, 2004). Designers should note the hypersensitivity of these children and the resulting consequence of their decisions regarding furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF&E) selections, spatial volumes, building layout, and other common characteristics of the built environment as detailed in Figure 1, “Design Considerations Matrix.” Analyzing existing research demonstrates that the decisions made by designers are not always as simple as following clear-cut recommendations—a point that alludes to the genuine complexity of the disorder.

Illustrating this dilemma, discordant consequences arise when specifying carpet in the classroom. Mackenzie (2008) supported the use of carpeting because it “helps to reduce the reverberation of sounds” (p.63). Myler et al. (2005) even recommended the use of carpet on the walls and discouraged the use of VCT or hard-surface flooring to support the same acoustical argument. But Myler et al. (2005) delved further into the subject and repudiated the previous argument by noting that many children with ASD suffer from “chronic upper respiratory problems” and “poor indoor air quality can definitely interfere with their education” (p. 102). Carpet has the potential to collect dust, mold, and pollen and can be an overwhelming source of glues that are manufactured with volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—contaminating the quality of the air. Because of the positive and negative attributes of carpet, the designer should specify the finish “judiciously” and consider carpet products with attributes that do not have aversive consequences regarding building occupants’ health (Myler, et al., 2005, p. 103).

Another dilemma arises when analyzing the use of natural light in the classroom. Much of the research documented that artificial fluorescent lighting was especially distracting for children with ASD (Myler, et al., 2005; Mackenzie, 2008; Wall, 2004). Mackenzie (2008) suggested that “natural light” in the classroom was preferable in order to counter the negative reaction to artificial lighting (p. 64). Again the solution is not as simple as presented. Myler, et al. (2005) cautioned the use of natural light because the “exterior views” through a window can distract children from staying on task (p. 104). Further, “clerestory windows and skylights” produce “shifting patterns of daylight that can complicate the visual environment” and prove antagonistic to the child’s focus on the learning task (p. 104). Again, the interior designer must weigh the evidence carefully before incorporating daylighting techniques that may or may not have a positive effect on the learning environment for children with ASD.

Findings on Spatial Issues and Programming

In the macro-environment, children with ASD often have trouble understanding organization in the classroom and find comfort in the strict routine of a daily schedule (Mostafa, 2008; Mackenzie, 2008; Wall, 2004; Flowers, 2002; Siegel, 2003). Many teachers have already responded to this difficulty by implementing the TEACCH program in their classrooms (Wall, 2004; Siegel, 2003). TEACCH stands for Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children (Siegel, 2003, p. 353). TEACCH attempts to identify “potential limitations of the child with autism and turn them into strengths” (Siegel, 2003, p. 353). By constructing rigid routines and utilizing visual organization in the classroom, TEACCH is meant to create a foundation of autonomy in the child with ASD. As noted by the research in Figure 1, Matrix of Design Considerations, the classroom is most effective when visual boundaries and picture labels divide the space (Mostafa, 2008; Mackenzie, 2008; Wall, 2004; Siegel, 2003). The child can then utilize an illustrated visual schedule provided by the teacher and coordinate it with the picture symbols placed outside the compartmentalized classroom spaces. See Figure 2 and Figure 3. In addition, individual workstations allow the child to work independently and complete learning tasks as necessary (Siegel, 2003). See Figure 4, Figure 5 and Figure 6.

Figure 2. Schedule, (n.d.). Source: Autism Internet Modules

Figure 3. Visual Boundaries, (n.d.). Source: Autism Internet Modules

Figure 4. TEACCH Workstation Conceptual Diagram, (2009). Source: Kristen Henriksen.

Figure 5. Individual Work Space, (n.d.). Source: Autism Internet Modules.

Figure 6. TEACCH Workstation, (n.d.). Source: Wellsphere.

Interior designers must understand the need for organization and routine in the TEACCH classroom and the resulting compartmentalized spatial organization. Mackenzie (2008) listed the typical areas of the classroom: entrance, schedule and transition area, circle or group gathering area, group activity area, independent work area, snack or eating area, toileting area, play or hands-on experiential learning area, and break area. Further, the interior designer can analyze the information presented in Figure 1 and list and organize the necessary components of an effective classroom in a way that supports the symptoms and behaviors of children with ASD. This will inform the identity of the program components and their spatial organization. See Figure 7.The dashed lines of Figure 7 represent necessary boundaries between each compartmentalized space and emphasize the schedule and transition area as the “hub” of the space—a place for the child to check his or her visual schedule and transition to the next space or task assigned by the teacher (Mackenzie, 2008, p. 67).

Figure 7. Conceptual Diagram of the ASD Learning Environment, (2009). Source: Kristen Henriksen.

It becomes evident that developing the program and necessary adjacencies of a space is highly dependent upon the TEACCH program and how teachers and students utilize the space. Much of the research associated with the TEACCH program is highly focused on informing the teacher how to adapt a space that already exists—with finishes, fixtures, spatial volumes, and adjacencies already in place. An article by Young (2004) further confirmed the notion that design resources for new construction are limited when considering the needs of children with ASD. There is a need for research that focuses on the built environment in a more implicit manner so that designers can become informed of these implications before design development and during the programming phase in a new construction application.


To investigate the content and issues recognized in Figure 1, “Design Considerations Matrix,” two survey-based studies were completed. In the first survey, seven educators of children with autism completed three open-ended questions. Email addresses were obtained from personal contacts and, therefore, verified as educators who have taught children with ASD. A briefing statement was initially sent to the email contacts and acted as an invitation to educators to participate in the study. A few days following, the potential participants were asked to respond to three survey questions by replying to the email, thereby providing informed consent. The open-ended survey questions were intended to reveal specific, situational examples of positive or negative reactions that children with ASD have had with the built learning environment. The responses were reviewed and coded by content and category, then analyzed in comparison to the literature review. (See Figure 8, Design Considerations Matrix from Pilot Survey, downloadable XLS Spreadsheet).

Based on this initial pilot, the second survey was expanded in order to contact a wider pool of potential respondents. This format consisted of a web-based survey with a combination of open-ended, multiple-choice and Likert-scale questions. Thirteen educators and autism specialists participated in this survey. The responses were analyzed and again compared to the literature review and initial survey (See Figure 9, Design Considerations Matrix from Survey, downloadable XLS Spreadsheet). In total, 20 participants’ responses were recorded, coded, and analyzed.


The coded survey results are recorded in Figure 8 and Figure 9. In the second survey, 92 percent, or 12 out of 13 respondents claimed to have observed a situation in which a child with ASD was adversely affected by the built environment. Seventy-seven percent, or 10 out of 13 respondents, cited both “classroom layout and organization” and “acoustics” as the most detrimental aspects of the built environment to the child with ASD. Sixty-nine percent, or 9 out of 13 respondents, cited “artificial lighting” and 62 percent, or 8 out of 13 respondents cited  “windows” as the most adverse characteristics. Fifty-four percent of respondents in the second survey use the TEACCH program in their classroom, and of those educators that use it, 100 percent find it to be an effective model for classroom organization.    

Also in the second survey, educators were asked to rank sensory systems in association with the built environment on a Likert scale of 1 to 7, from not distracting to distracting. One-hundred percent of respondents rated auditory attributes of the built environment as at least a 5 (46 percent) noted auditory attributes to be the most distracting attribute. Ninety-three percent of respondents believe that visual attributes of the built environment are at least a 4 on the scale. The olfactory sense was determined to be the least distracting sensory system for children with ASD.


The urgent need for improved, more supportive learning environments for children with ASD is apparent from the analysis of data from the literature review and surveys. These improvements should be considered both at the macro-level of the environment, which involves the spatial layout of the setting, as well as the micro-level of the setting, which addresses the sensory-perceptual aspects of learning and child development.

At the macro-level, spatial order in the organizational layout of the classroom can assist the child with ASD to understand the structure of the larger environment. The importance of structure in the learning environment was present in the literature review and was cited most often in the open-ended portion of the surveys. The data from the expanded survey confirmed the notion that many educators utilize the TEACCH program, which capitalizes on the importance of structure in the learning environment.

Within the macro-environment, the specific architectural and interior features must be carefully considered to avoid the role of the built environment as a disabling mechanism.  The data suggested that educators, specialists, and designers may find it difficult to respond to a child’s unique sensory needs because of their inability to experience the sensory environment equivalently and, therefore, articulate solutions to improve the child’s autonomy. For example, it is often cited that acoustics are the most troubling of the sensory modes, but references to the visual sensory mode were the most frequent result in many cases. It is suggested that future studies focus on the ease of articulation of visual problems and solutions in comparison to the difficulty of articulating acoustic problems and solutions.

Another interesting finding was the discrepancies of natural light and windows in the classroom. While some educators and specialists cited windows as a visual distraction and acoustical nuisance, others praised windows for their source of natural light that was soothing in comparison to artificial fluorescent lighting. The overarching response in the survey data provided by educators and specialists was that features of the built environment must be flexible enough to be able to respond and adapt to each child’s unique needs. With regard to windows and natural light, such a solution could be as simple as window shades that block visual distraction and allow the user to control the amount of natural light in the space. The same flexible approach could be utilized in response to discrepancies cited in the literature review about the use of carpet. In order to reap the acoustical benefits of carpet, one design solution might be to specify carpet tiles that are low in VOC content and can be replaced once dust, pollen, or mold begin to accumulate.

From the data in the existing research and the current study, we start to see a pattern that results from the lack of thoughtful design. Designers can respond with universal design in spaces that are flexible and adaptable. For example, one could ponder the difference in the child’s level of focus and comfort if the classroom contained light fixtures with removable lenses to alter the quality or color of light, according to the needs of the specific child. Further, a dimming switch could be thoughtfully placed within the child’s reach so he or she could gain autonomy and control of the environment. This would limit the role of the built environment as a disabling institution and transform it into a responsive and flexible tool that enhances the learning experience.

Furthering the idea of thoughtful innovation, fire alarms could be redesigned in a way that is less brutal on the hypersensitive ears of the child with ASD. Although the eyes can also be a source of hypersensitivity, it seems that visual alarms might be less obtrusive. It would require the innovation of creative minds, but what if alarms were redesigned altogether—without the use of visual or aural stimulation? Additionally, one could consider the typical, individualized TEACCH workstation utilized in the learning environment. It is a standardized concept that was thoughtfully designed by those who developed the TEACCH program. See Figure 4.But a creative mind cannot help but question—what would be the result of a design that encompassed the ideals of the TEACCH workstation but in a package that isn’t a clunky concoction of left over furniture and bookshelves? See figure 5 and figure 6.


There is an urgent need for better, more supportive learning environments for children with ASD. Further study of the interaction between children with ASD and the educational setting is necessary in order to enhance the learning experience and invigorate educators working in such environments. This information should be passed on to architects and interior designers in the beginning of the design process. Children with ASD and their devoted educators deserve well-designed environments that are inspiring and functional—as opposed to disabling and unresponsive. It should be the responsibility of interior designers to take action and create universal design solutions that lend autonomy and the opportunity of a higher quality of life for children with ASD. 

Works Cited

Autism Society of America. (2009a). Autism 101: A free on-line course. Retrieved September 19, 2009, from http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_course

Autism Society of America. (2009b). What are autism spectrum disorders. Retrieved November 20, 2009, from http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_whatis

Flowers, T. (2002). The color of autism: Methods to reach and educate children on the autism spectrum. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.

Hanbury, M. (2005). Educating pupils with autistic spectrum disorders: A practical guide. London: Paul Chapman.

Henderson, S. R. (1997). New buildings create new people: The pavillion schools of Weimar Frankfurt as a model of pedagogical reform. Design Issues, 13(1), 27-38.

Jones, G., & Jordan R. (1999). Meeting the needs of children with autistic spectrum disorders. London: David Fulton.

Kopec, D. (2006). Environmental psychology for design. New York: Fairchild.

Labinowicz, E. (1980). The Piaget primer: Thinking, learning, teaching. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

MacKenzie, H. (2008). Reaching and teaching the child with autism spectrum disorder: Using learning preferences and strengths. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Mostafa, M. (2008). An architecture for autism: Concepts of design intervention for the autistic user. Archnet – IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, 2(1), 189-211.

Myler, P. A., Fantacone, T. A. & Merritt, E. T. (2005). Special ed that’s even more special: Designing schools for autistic students. In E. T. Merritt, J. A. Beaudin, C.R. Cassidy & P.A. Myler (Eds.), Magnet and specialized schools of the future: A focus on change (pp. 99-105).Lanham, MA: Scarecrow Education.

Peterson, R. & Felton-Collin, V. (1986). The Piaget handbook for teachers and parents: Children in the age of discovery, preschool-third grade. New York: TeachersCollege.

Siegel, B. (2003). Helping children with autism learn: Treatment approaches for parents and professionals. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wadsworth, B. J. (1971). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development: An introduction for students of    psychology and education. New York: David McKay.

Wall, K. (2004). Autism and early years practice: A guide for early years professionals, teachers and parents. London: Paul Chapman.

Weinstein, C. S., & David, T. G. (Eds.). (1987). Spaces for children: The built environment and child development. New York: Plenum Press.

Wolfberg, P. J. (2009). Play and imagination in children with autism (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College    Press.

Young, E. (2004). Special deeds: Designing for autism. [Electronic version]. RIBA Journal, 111(7), 58-60.

Figure 1.
Henriksen, K. (Editor). (2009). Design considerations matrix from existing research. [Table].

Figure 2.
Autism Internet Modules. (Photographer). (n.d.). Schedule. [Online Image]. Retrieved November 12, 2009 from http://www.autisminternetmodules.org/mod_view.php?nav_id=125

Figure 3.
Autism Internet Modules. (Photographer). (n.d.). Visual Boundaries. [Online Image]. Retrieved November 12, 2009 from http://www.autisminternetmodules.org/mod_view.php?nav_id=10

Figure 4.
Henriksen, K. (Illustrator). (2009). TEACCH workstation conceptual diagram. [Diagram].

Figure 5.
Autism Internet Modules. (Photographer). (n.d.). Individual work space. [Online Image]. Retrieved November 12, 2009 from http://www.autisminternetmodules.org/mod_view.php?nav_id=73

Figure 6
Peek, C. (Photographer). (2009). TEACCH workstation. [Online Image]. Retrieved November 12, 2009   from http://www.wellsphere.com/autism-...

Figure 7.
Henriksen, K. (Illustrator). (2009). Conceptual diagram of the ASD learning environment. [Diagram].

Figure 8.
Henriksen, K. (Editor). (2009). Design considerations matrix from pilot survey. [Table].

Figure 9.
Henriksen, K. (Editor). (2010). Design considerations matrix from survey. [Table].




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