Creating a learning environment for pupils on the autism spectrum: the physical environment

This unit examines the environmental elements of classroom and school design for pupils with autism.

The unit covers:

  • Research into the features of schools and classrooms that pupils with autism find challenging or supportive.
  • The colours, lighting and noise levels that exacerbate the sensory issues sometimes experienced by pupils with autism.
  • Ways in which you can adapt the classroom environment for pupils with autism.

Autism-friendly environments

A growing interest in design features for autism-friendly environments has encouraged architects to consider the needs of children on the autism spectrum when designing schools.

Ordered, tidy, and well-labelled spaces help pupils with autism to move around learning environments, and curved walls facilitate easy movement between classes.

Whilst long, straight corridors may encourage running, curved spaces with additional furniture options encourage interaction and calmer movement.

Those with auditory hypersensitivity can find loud noises or even low-level background sounds disturbing. Sound-proof environments are suggested for pupils with these difficulties.

Some pupils with autism may also be sensitive to fluorescent lighting or bright lights. Try to keep environments lit with low-level natural light if possible; classroom lights may not always be necessary. Study lamps can also be a good way of controlling light levels.

Colour palette

Colour can be an important factor in affecting the mood of a child with autism. Different colour schemes may have a calming, stimulating, or even disturbing effect on pupils. A study has found that certain colour schemes are preferred by pupils and carers. Subdued or pastel colours mixed with grey, colours in blue or green hue and colours in solid, un-patterned blocks were preferential.



Beaver, C (2011) Designing environments for children and adults on the autism spectrum, Good Autism Practice Journal, 13, 1, 7-12

Colour palette


Noise reduction strategies can be useful for some pupils on the autism spectrum. Visual volume systems like the one below can help to guide noise levels in the classroom.

Volume dial


Whisper voice

Talking voice

Shouting voice

Screaming voice

  • Broadfields Primary School: leadership for ASC at three levels

    This video features interview footage with staff at an inclusive primary school in Barnet. The school???s head teacher, manager of autism resource provision, and a class teacher explain how they collectively help to provide for the needs of pupils on the autism spectrum.

    This clip relates to task 1 in your PDF of unit 17.

    Show transcript

    Robin Archibald ??? Headteacher

    I'm Robin Archibald, head teacher of Broadfields primary school in Barnet.

    I think there are two main things to consider in terms of making sure you successfully integrate a resource provision into a mainstream school. Firstly you have to look at the staff both in the provision and the mainstream and ensure that they're properly trained and properly understand the needs of autistic pupils. And secondly you have to look at the needs of both the children in the provision and also the children in the mainstream school. And we've worked very hard with the children in the mainstream school to help them understand that we have got a resource provision for ASC pupils, and help them to know what it's like to be autistic so that these children are welcome in classrooms.

    We've worked very hard to ensure that all the staff in the school are understanding of the needs of pupils with autism. But we spend a lot of time, particularly with the resource provision staff, helping them to become real experts in ASC. We've used external professionals to support that, and indeed we have ensured that the provision manager also has been qualified to a Master's level in ASC.

    Janet Dobney ??? Manager of the Autism Resource Provision

    My names Janet Dobney and I'm the manager of the autism resource provision here at Broadfields primary school.

    With the younger children we use a very visual, attention building approach based on work from a Speech and Language Therapist. What we're trying to do is build the children's attention and listening skills by providing some very enticing and appealing activities, trying to make learning irresistible for the children. For example, with a numeracy activity using counting having the elephant figure and the very exciting aspect of the fountain coming out of its trunk and then building up with the counting and singing as well. What you'll find in that sort of activity is we use very targeted language so that the children aren't overwhelmed by a lot of different speech, and that enables them to access the language that's being used. The words are so closely connected with very exciting experiences that they really connect that vocabulary with what they're seeing and what's happening.

    Resource base actuality

    Teacher: Squeeze! And....more?

    Pupil: More

    Teacher: Squeeze!!!


    The aim is for the adult to be the most exciting thing in the room at the time, and what the adult's doing is going to really attract their attention and capture them and they are learning the skills of waiting, and of watching, and attending, and turn-taking, because they then get the opportunity to do the same activity themselves.

    Resource base actuality

    Teacher and pupil singing: '...that's the way elephant washes his clothes.'

    Janet: This is the tray for the ones we have done to go on. Put that one on there.


    Lego therapy was developed in the 1990s by Dan Legoff, we're using it as part of our inclusion for the children in our autism provision, so we'll have a child from the autism provision matched with two of their mainstream peers, and this helps them really build relationships that they can take into their mainstream classroom and I think it's very effective for that for the children and those relationships, based on a shared interest and a shared enthusiasm. The therapy group works with 3 children in the group and they're each assigned a different role ??? there's the role of the engineer who has the instructions for building the model, the second child is the supplier and has all the different bricks, and the third child is the builder who is then making the model under the guidance of the engineer. So it's key for the children to be negotiating with each other through the activity. It really builds on the children's natural interests and strengths who are on the autism spectrum, because it's such a logical systematic sort of toy. And it really appeals to the children's systemising natures.

    Resource base actuality

    Pupil 1: And we're all ready to start

    Janet: Are you ready boys?

    Pupils: Yes.

    Pupil 1: You build...


    It's a great motivational activity the children are really developing their social skills and their play skills and their communication skills whilst doing an activity that they really enjoy.

    Resource base actuality

    Pupil: Can I read the instructions please? Thank you!


    The adult's role is really to help the children to resolve any difficulties by identifying that there's a problem and helping the children to identify what the problem is and what they can do to resolve it.

    Resource base actuality

    Kian: So you need this one over here...

    Janet: Kian, there was a problem there, what happened?

    Kian: I don't know.

    Janet: You're the one with the instructions. Who's the supplier?

    Kian: Ooooh! Silly me! Oopsy!

    Paul Pyzer ??? Teacher in the Autistic Spectrum Condition Provision

    I'm Paul Pyzer. I'm a teacher in the Autistic Spectrum Condition Provision at Broadfield's primary school.??

    Autistic children often need to know what's going to happen in a day and if they can see what's going to happen and what they need to do next, they're often calm and it helps them during the day.??

    The two main ways that we incorporate TEACCH principals in to our classroom: one of them is in the visual systems and routines for children and the other one is in our classroom layout and organisation.?? So as part of the visual systems in the routine we have a class time table on the board, and we go through that with the children as part of their circle time at the beginning of each of their sessions. And then after that they have individual schedules and a list of the activities that they've got to do, and it always ends in a motivating activity ??? it could be play time or if their incentive is food it could be part of a snack or lunch time that it ends in.?? And they have to take a cue card, a schedule card, and they go and put it on their schedule. They can see what activity they've got to do next, they take their last activity off their schedule, and they can look at their next activity and then go and get ready for that.??

    The pupils will use personal work stations to do independent work and they're often screened off in a quiet part of the classroom to stop them getting distracted. The other way is in the classroom layout and the organisation. Our classroom is split into different areas.?? One area is the social area which is where the children would all sit for a circle time or if we're reading a story to them, or if we're doing whiteboard ??? there's a group work table where the children would sit if they're doing any work as a group ??? and that's also where more than one child will be with an adult working toward the learning objective.

    One of the things we do as part of TEACCH is they have independent workstations where they will complete what we call 'tray work'.?? So they have a green tray and a red tray for literacy and for numeracy, and when it's time for their independent work they would take their green tray and their red tray over to a workstation, which we will put on their schedule, and they have a set of activities in their green tray which they have to work through from top to bottom.?? Once they've finished all their activities they put it in their red tray, and they work from the green tray on their left to the red tray on their right, and then when they finish that activity they put their trays back, and they are all familiar activities and it's to promote children to work independently.

    It definitely does work, and it means that sometimes when there's work that's unfamiliar after they've done their independent work for a number of months here, when we give them something that isn't familiar, we can start them off and we're able to leave them and they don't call you or need support all the time, so it's less staff intensive as well.

    Resource base actuality

    Teacher: Well done. Nathan can you read it?


    The relationship with parents is really important. They have to feel very confident in what we're doing in school, and they have to understand our practice, so that they can continue the same sort of strategies that we use at school at home because that's going to benefit the child. And therefore we do work very closely with them, not just in terms of building a positive personal relationship but also trying to help them understand and develop their own practice working with their child.