Are schools autism friendly?

I have come to realise that Chris Packham really is a national treasure such was the outpouring of support and praise for him following the airing of   “Aspergers and Me” in which he talks candidly about his own experiences as an autistic person.  If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’ll be available on BBC iplayer for a few more weeks.

I knew that I would find the programme interesting but it went far above and beyond my expectations. It was so insightful to hear from an autistic adult who was able to communicate very clearly and powerfully about some of his experiences.

At one point during the programme Chris visits a school in America for autistic children. They are receiving a treatment called Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) which is a method of modifying behaviour through a system of rewards and punishments.  It’s an intervention designed to try to help autistic children adjust their behaviours so that they conform more closely to those of typical children. There’s a lot of controversy about ABA as a method of “treatment” for autistic children with many autistic adults claiming that the practice is abusive. However some autistic adults report more positive experiences of ABA. Like I said, its controversial.

For our situation ABA was never a proposed intervention for Edward and he’s managed perfectly well without it. I don’t think he’d have tolerated this type of approach – he’d have needed a lot more rational reasoning and explaining to help him decide whether or not he wanted to try to modify any of his behaviours.

I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of ABA here as I haven’t looked into it in enough detail.

What did strike me though was Chris Packman’s observation of the school environment.

The actual design and environemnt of this school for autistic children proved to be a very uncomfortable place for Chris.

It was loud.

The lights were bright.

There were too many patterns and random images on the walls.

There were a lot of people all doing different things in the same space.

Busy. Loud. Bright.

Too much information.

If you were overwhelmed in a situation where you got too much information too quickly but were unable to leave, how would that make you feel?

Imagine it. Your heart rate increasing, breathing quickening, head pounding. Panic.

If you were an autistic child in this situation how well do you think you’d be able to control your behaviour?

During the programme Chris was also filmed in his own home.

Goodness – he keeps an immaculate home and I didn’t get the impression he’d had a quick whip round chucking random items into cupboards to give an appearance of order which is exactly what I’d have to do if a camera crew rocked up at my house.

His home was tranquil, ordered, calm and quiet. The walls were pale, the blinds were white and rolled down to prevent too much visual distraction from the outside world.  For Chris it was his sanctuary; his place of retreat.

It made me think about schools and autistic pupils.

So many autistic pupils are expelled from school each year due to behaviour problems that the schools say they cannot manage. I wonder if creating more autism friendly environments could help pupils stay calmer?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what a school designed by an autistic architect could look like?

Someone who understood how important it was to carefully consider the lighting, sound proofing, temperature, noise, lines of sight, visual surroundings….. I’m sure the list could go on.

Don’t you think that kind of design could actually suit all pupils very well?

I posed the question, “Why don’t we have autistic adults designing schools to make them more comfortable for autistic children?” on twitter during the programme and of all my tweets this one gained by far the most interest.

I’ve learned a few things as a result.

There is a website called Architecture for Autism which gives lots of ideas about how to make a school environment more autism friendly.

the Royal College of Art are starting a programme called Design for the Mind in an attempt to make environments better for neurodivergent people (anyone with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia). If you consider yourself to be neurodivergent they would appreciate it if you would complete their short online survey. Click here.

I met an autistic teacher who tries to make her school as autism friendly as possible and she’s recently written a post about her school here.

As a non autistic person when I viewed the school in this film I only noticed the distress of one of the boys who was having an ABA session. I didn’t notice any of the myriad of things that were making Chris Packham uncomfortable.

I’d love to see what a school designed for all pupils, including the autistic ones, looked like, wouldn’t you?

One of my favorite quotes from the film was by Steve Silberman, author of the brilliant book Neurotribes.

He reflected that “We have to start redesigning society rather than redesigning the individual.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I’d love to know what you thought about the programme if you watched it. Feel free to leave a comment.

If you liked this post you might also want to read my post, “Accessibility – it’s good for everyone!”


Spectrum Sunday



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16 thoughts on “Are schools autism friendly?

  1. Thanks for the mention! I have a theory that older buildings beat newer buildings for Autistics. In my experience (in the US) our buildings built around the 1900’s, give or take (my school is 1920) tend to have a lot of what we Autistics need. They have huge windows for natural lighting (unless some fool has blocked the top portion to save heating costs), can develop wonderful cross-breezes when you get all the windows open thanks to being built before air conditioning, have higher ceilings, and often have wonderful alcoves to dodge in for a private sensory break. One thing I’d change about my school is find a way to get our steam boiler back since ductwork heating is dustier and doesn’t have that wonderful benefit of drying the air a bit (it gets humid here…cold and clammy is not fun). The one downside is that I have no solution for heat/humidity (it gets quite hot here in the summer, and also sometimes at the beginning and end of the school year) because air conditioning is only a temporary solution and other than the blessing that is brick (keeps a school/house warm/cool an extra bonus day if the weather is only bad one day), for the long-term, a/c is the only thing that makes me passably functional…but in the long-term, if I can’t get the windows open, my brain is scrambled and fuzzy so I’m not REALLY all that functional. I’d like to become a year-round school (my kids hate summer vacations since they’d rather be with us), but I can’t quite figure that a/c issue out. We’re blessed to have it in one area of the building, but that area was newer and not as sensory-friendly and anyway a/c isn’t good for very long if you want to actually be able to focus. I hope more designers can figure these challenges out, but it sounds like just the movement of time has ruined what might have been better, Autistic-friendly buildings and, in our experience, reaching back to the past ist he way to go.

  2. I too thought the programme was amazing but that ABA section had me in tears. I couldn’t think of a worse place for our LO. For me it is totally about modifying society and not individuals. We started with a really bad experience at school but with a change in staff we have an inclusion manager and SENCO who are really committed to making the learning environment more accessible. It’s still not perfect and not across the whole school but L is now in class much more than she’s out, the first year this has happened.
    Thanks for prompting me to think about our home environment too. The programme also made me realise I should buy at least 2 of any items of clothing L will wear!

    • Glad to hear that your daughter is having a better time in school now that some staff are helping to create a more accessible learning environment. A few small tweeks to the environment can make a hugely positive difference for children with sensory processing differences.

  3. Autistic adults designing schools for autistic children is the best idea I have ever heard! My son struggled his way through seven years of mainstream primary where the environment was terrible for him. From the noise, crowds and sights to the lack of understanding around his condition. He is now in a specialist secondary school with seven children in his class. The school has large windows and plently of natual light, it is calm, peaceful, structured and he is doing great!

  4. I love this post! Davis goes to a school with an ABA style teaching. They don’t use ABA to really change his behaviours, more to engage him in learning. But guess what? It’s delivered in a place plain room where resources come in and out as needed. It’s almost as if it been thought about eh? On the odd occasion we have to take David into his brothers mainstrem school he focuses on his iPad, it’s all just too busy, even going through the halls. Thanks again for linking to #spectrumsunday

  5. I’m glad that you’ve written about this Lynne because its reminded me to watch this. I have seen lots of negative comments about it and it’s good to be able to balance things up. You make really good points here about the design and layout and I was really interested to read this and the other comments. Thanks for sharing with #tweensteensbeyond

    • Thanks for your comment Nicky – I haven’t heard any negative comments about the programme so I’d be really interested to know more about what people didn’t like. I hope you find it an interesting watch. I thought it made a really good case for why we would all benefit by society becoming more inclusive towards autistic people.

  6. I’ve just read Chris Packham’s book ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ and I really struggled with it so this programme is something that i must catch up on. I like the idea of autistic architects getting involved with designing schools and I’m sure it would benefit all pupils. Thanks so much for sharing with us at #TweensTeensBeyond

  7. I love this post. So many children have sensory issues, not just children with autism. I think as educators, we are learning more and more about how busy school environments are just not helping children. I love the change to more natural calming spaces in some schools. I just hope more schools take on board the influence environments have on learning.

  8. I thought Chris’s book and the TV programme were interesting, though I’d have liked to see him look at other ideas too(I’m just curious). i am very taken with the idea of school design though, one of my children is very dyslexic with a lot of problems with organising and focusing. We used to joke school should put him in the stationary cupboard to help him concentrate, maybe they should have made things calmer visually. I certainly notice if he is doing homework on the laptop he gets completely confused by the amount of information available and can’t identify the important bits. i imagine that can also happen in a classroom.

  9. Our environment is so key to how we all feel and react as individuals and I don’t know, but can see how important this must be as a factor for neurodivergent people. This is such an interesting post Lynne and whilst I didn’t see the programme I will make a point of checking it out. Interior design for the brain! There is a hashtag in the making. Thanks for joining us again Lynne. #TweensTeensBeyond PS sorry to be late commenting. Have been away and now catching up. x

  10. This is a fantastic post and I thought the same when Chris was talking about how the school made him feel so uncomfortable. I think there’s a lot we need to learn about ‘design for the mind’ and is something I’m really interested in too! Thank you so much for joining #accesslinky