Imagine wearing a hearing aid on its highest setting and being unable to make any adjustment. You can hear the speech of the person next to you – but, at the same volume, you hear birdsong through an open window, the air conditioning whirring above and the traffic droning outside. The difference in the layers of sound cannot be filtered and a cacophony results. Combine this with some of your senses being crossed or scrambled, rather like a poor telephone connection, and you start to appreciate how some people on the autistic spectrum encounter the world. It is small wonder that productive teaching of an autistic child presents a challenge.
Within our living spaces, all of us are bombarded with an array of stimulating sensory inputs – sound, smell, touch, taste, movement – and a never-ending deluge of visual information. Many people manage to filter and cope, but people with autism encounter the world differently. Sensory difficulties can cause hyper-sensitivity (sense too much) or hypo-sensitivity (sense too little), or combinations of both. The environment becomes a confusing place when attempting to process “too much information”. Unexpected changes cause anxieties, which are challenging to manage, and the level of stimuli can tip the balance, to cause sensory overload, sometimes misinterpreted as a tantrum.
An optimised learning environment is vital for every child. For autistic children, the importance of environment is magnified, as are the benefits that can be achieved through appropriate architecture and design.