The impact of noise and soundscape on children with autism in schools
1 December 2021
Health Wellbeing and Sustainable Buildings MSc student Alex Mason reviews the impacts of noise and soundscape for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in schools, including design recommendations.
It is estimated that for every 100 children in the UK, at least one will be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With approximately 71% of these children educated within mainstream schools (1), it is essential that we design inclusive schools as standard to meet the needs of every child requiring education.
William Melnick defined ‘noise’ as “the unpleasant sounds which distract the human being physically and physiologically”. Research states that younger children are much more susceptible to poor acoustic conditions than adults, with children in their primary school years experiencing greater detrimental effects of noise and reverberation (2). Noise does not affect all children equally and pupils with autism are often very sensitive to specific types of noise (3). Whilst some children may not be disturbed by a specific noise source, children with autism would cover their ears because the same level of noise is so painful (3). Short-term management of these issues has seen children using ear defenders to avoid distress, something which should not be required in a school that has been successfully designed to be inclusive.
To provide successful learning environments for those with hearing ability, it is crucial for a pupil to be able to hear and understand the speech from their teacher. With specific emphasis on children with ASD, the classroom soundscape should be considered. The presence of background noise in a classroom can be very impactful on an autistic student’s ability to understand speech from their teachers, with some individuals with ASD exhibiting extreme or ritualised responses to sensory input, including a fascination with or an aversion to certain sounds (2).
It seems there is a knowledge gap between designers and the special needs for children with ASD in schools, and there is a requirement for education building designers to acquire a greater understanding of the specialist requirements of children with ASD to make schools more inclusive and effective learning environments. With the number of children with ASD and awareness around this subject growing in tandem, there may be an argument to provide separate education facilities to address these needs, however, there are opportunities to avoid this approach, giving children with ASD the ability to socialise and interact with the rest of the population on a daily basis, improving their communication skills, confidence and self-esteem (4), something invaluable for their transition into adulthood. Ways in which noise issues can be addressed to help encourage this inclusive environment are as follows (5):
- Specify acoustic tiles, carpets and draperies, such as hanging curtains, to minimise echo and reverberation time
- Use light fixtures that do not emit repeated noises
- Eliminate noise filtering into the classroom from outside or other building spaces, such as the use of sound attenuation in ventilation ductwork or ensuring windows are closed during periods of high external noise levels.
The whole school will reap the rewards of successful inclusive design, and with the above measures implemented during the design process, we can help children with autism to thrive in mainstream education.
Alex Mason is a student on the Health, Wellbeing and Sustainable Buildings MSc programme studying part-time whilst working as a Building Service Engineer in an Architectural practice.
- Public Health England. Children and young people with autism spectrum disorder Case for change and recommendations for London. 2017.
- Kanakri SM, Shepley M, Varni JW, Tassinary LG. Noise and autism spectrum disorder in children: An exploratory survey. Res Dev Disabil. 2017 Apr 1;63:85–94.
- Daniels R. Acoustic design of schools: performance standards. Build Bull 93. 2015;17:43. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bb93-acoustic-design-of-schoo...
- Mostafa M. Architecture for autism: Autism aspectssTM in school design. Archnet-IJAR. 2014;8(1):143–58.
- Martin CS. Exploring the impact of the design of the physical classroom environment on young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). J Res Spec Educ Needs. 2016.