Autistic Students Love these Sensory Spaces in the Classroom
Autistic students may have differences in sensory sensitivity that can affect their learning and performance in class. Restlessness, fidgeting, and compulsive behaviors can interfere with students’ learning processes. To help these students focus and feel comfortable in class, teachers can create sensory spaces in their classrooms that address sensory needs.
What are Sensory Spaces?
Sensory spaces are specially designed areas that students with autism can use when they feel overwhelmed by the classroom environment. In these quiet spaces, students can work on:
- Sensory needs by engaging in sensory activities that calm or provide students with specific sensory input.
- Frustrations caused by changes to routine or academic challenges.
- Self-calming strategies.
Students can use the space in two main ways:
- As a private space or “time-out” area where students can get in control of their emotions and sensory systems to avoid meltdowns.
- As a reward for good behaviors, actions or completion of tasks.
Designing Sensory Spaces for Autistic Students
Here are some factors that teachers must consider when establishing a sensory space in their classrooms:
Location: Sensory spaces are typically placed in quiet areas. Teachers can choose a quiet corner at the back of the classroom, free from clutter and develop that into a sensory space.
Furniture: Sensory spaces must be equipped with furnishings and materials that are calming and soothing to students. Teachers can use rugs, soft cushions, throw pillows, blankets and bean bags to create a cozy corner. Although partitions can be used to create a sense of privacy for students, the area must still be visible to teachers.
Lighting and sound: Students can be given noise cancelling headphones to block out extraneous sounds. Teachers can use dark curtains to reduce lighting inside the space or provide students with sunglasses.
Equipment: Teachers can equip the sensory space with books, relaxing music, colors and paints, sensory items such as textured toys, fidget spinners, clay, squeeze balls, soft toys, slime, therapeutic bands (Thera-bands) and other sensory equipment based on the needs of the students.
Visual cues: Teachers can put up pictures or posters of different calming strategies. These can either be general posters or specific to students’ needs (designed in collaboration with students’ therapist) and can serve as cues to help students independently calm themselves.
Use of Space: Explain to students that they can make use of the space:
- At the first sign of agitation or if they are feeling upset. Students can be given break cards – a card with the statement “I want a break!” Teachers can specify the number of times a student is allowed to use this card in a day based on the student’s sensory needs and the effectiveness of taking a break.
- As a reward for completion of task or good behaviors.
- In between class activities, as engaging in the sensory space can help prepare student for the next activity in their schedule.
Time: Students can be allowed to use the space for a specific period of time. A timer can be set up to monitor this. Once the timer signals the end of the decided time, students can independently return to their seats or be brought back by the teacher.
By creating sensory spaces, teachers provide students with autism a safe, positive, and acceptable space in the classroom to relax, control their sensory systems, and preserve their emotional stability for focused learning.
Looking for more info? Introduction to Autism, an online professional development course, helps teachers navigate sensory spaces for autistic students and other classroom accommodations.
January 2021 Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
About the Author
Ellen Paxton is a respected expert in education and best known as the Chief Learning Officer of Professional Learning Board. As a two-time National Board Certified Teacher, Ellen has successfully published and customized online professional development courses and Learning Management Systems for 20 years to help teachers meet their state continuing education renewal credit requirements. Through ProfessionalLearningBoard.com, RenewaTeachingLicense.com, and ConnectedPD.com, Ellen has established solutions and maintained partnerships with several accredited universities, higher education institutions, teachers’ unions and state Departments of Education while setting strategic direction that makes a difference and overseeing implementation of popular online PD for schools.