Every year, autism organisations, disability advocates, parents and people with autism from all over the world celebrate the month of April with fundraising and awareness-raising events.

The Inspire foundation believes everyone has a right to equality and inclusion. We work with hundreds of children and adults with various disabilities, including autism to help them achieve this.

The world around a child with autism can be a source of stress and very difficult to understand, hence the importance of the environment is central to the treatment of autism.

These children find comfort when provided with a predictable setting that is well planned and structured, thereby being able to understand what is expected of them and how to behave in each environment.

Over the past years, an array of different approaches and treatments with regards to autism have been developed, many of which have gained international prominence. Research has supported the importance of the environment and have often referred to it as a ‘prosthetic device’.

This may be compared to the use of prosthetic devices, such as glasses or wheelchairs, where the individual is enabled and can function as if the main challenges of the disability were not there. The environment as a prosthetic device does not change the disability but overrides it by enabling and empowering the person.

Approaches which focus on the impact of the environment leave from the premise that rather than modifying the person to fit into the environment, the focus would be on modifying the environment to cater for the needs of the person with autism.

While it is not realistic to attempt to modify every aspect of the environment, the world would be a more accessible place to live in for people on the autism spectrum if the impact that the environment may have on them would be recognised and understood.

Unless steps are taken to provide appropriately designed classrooms, children with autism will continue to face the challenge of functioning in educational environments

The physical design of classrooms has an important function in aiding children with autism to understand what is expected of them and to increase their independent functioning. As individuals with autism are known to have a strength in processing information through the visual modality, the physical structure of their surroundings may actually enable children to experience less stress and anxiety.

One of the major areas of concern in people with autism is their ability to process sensory information. Sensory issues in the visual modality are complex and may be affected by the spatial characteristics, design layout and the colours used to furnish and decorate.

Children with autism may tend to focus on unimportant details in the environment rather than focusing on relevant information, illustrating the importance of organising and reducing stimuli that is meaningless to them.

Excess sensory input such as visual stimulation is reduced in a neatly arranged environment, allowing children to focus on relevant information presented during activities rather than being distracted by unnecessary visual stimulus.

An evaluation of the setting vis-à-vis natural lighting should be performed to ensure that bright light is minimised, as this may be very disturbing to individuals with autism.

Stereotypical behaviours were particularly affected by the intensity, brightness and the high-speed flicker produced by fluorescent lighting. Sensory overload may be caused by the flicker produced very bright fluorescent lights and this may affect their visual field and cause distortions.

I often hear comments from people insisting that individuals with autism should learn how to live in the world as it really is, that is without modifying/adapting the environment. This view, in fact, is discriminatory should it be applied to a person with a physical impairment who would never be expected to adapt to an inaccessible world.

With the same reasoning, individuals with autism should not be expected to accommodate themselves to the sensory overloads that the design of the environment may impose on them. Unless steps are taken to provide appropriately designed classroom, children with autism will continue to face the challenge of functioning in educational environments.

The impact that can be made by modifying environments is critical as this positively influences the behaviour, functioning and comfort of our children with autism, thereby playing an important role in their development and most importantly, their happiness.

Doreen Mercieca, MEd Autism (Birm.), is on the ASD advisor/expert panel at the Inspire foundation.

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