Julie Irish, “Supporting Students with Autism in the School Environment”

Julie Irish, “Supporting Students with Autism in the School Environment”


-: Good afternoon my name is Julie Irish and I’m an assistant professor in interior design. I’d like to tell you about my research supporting students with autism in the school environment. Hopefully in four minutes although the research took me six years. Why do you get lost so often? I think it’s this. I don’t think we know where we really ought to be. So that’s a quote from a 13 year old boy called Higashada describing the difficulties he and many other with autism spectrum disorder face. Adults with autism have also described how they got lost at school causing them anxiety and emphasizing their differences compared to their peers. Autism is a developmental disorder affecting around one in 59 children. Among other characteristics children can be unduly sensitive to their environments. The noise, lights or smells unnoticeable to most people can adversely affect them. Conversely children can be under-sensitive to their environment and not notice things an average person would. So although the sensitivity to the environment can impact children’s performance at school. To date there has been little research in this area. So the purpose of my exploratory experiment was to find whether Wayfinding Aids and that’s colored doors, colored shapes on the floor and signage applied in an elementary school hallway could help children with autism find their way to a given destination with minimal assistance. So it was hoped this could improve their Wayfinding skills and promote independence. Often children are led around school by teachers. Wayfinding describes how humans use sensory cues from the environment to find their way around. It’s an important skill in school especially at transition times when children must move quickly between classrooms. I’ve included a convenient sample of nine children with autism age eight to 11 who were randomly assigned to control a treatment groups. I set up a route along the hallway unfamiliar to participants which you can see in the top center slide. I gave each participant Wayfinding instructions and led them to the destination then asked them to lead me to the destination. Participants in the control group used existing cues in the environment. Those in the treatment group used the Wayfinding aids applied along the route. Since this population varies in individual characteristics we also felt that it was important to interview each subject to see what they felt about their Wayfinding experience. This is a population who are not often asked their opinion but could provide valuable knowledge for designers. To increase validity I took a mixed method approach to collect data including observation, behavioral mapping video and audio recordings, and questionnaires. My findings were that all participants were able to reach their destination but those in the treatment group were able to discriminate colors of Wayfinding aids remembered shapes and signage to a greater extent than those in the control group. Some participants demonstrated a hypersensitivity to the environment. For example, one little boy was adversely effected by a radio playing in the distance and the smells of polish which I had not noticed. I believe this is the first research study to test children with autism in Wayfinding. One of the few randomized trials in this particular field. Although the findings are not generalizable they suggest Wayfinding could be used as an educational intervention and hoped it could be replicated in a larger study. Please contact me if you’d like to know more and thank you for listening. (applause)


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