Designing autism friendly spaces in the education sector
School design has evolved significantly over recent decades to ensure many more children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Disabilities (SEND) can attend mainstream schools for their education, rather than be segregated into specialist facilities.
Continuous improvement in school design has been facilitated through the implementation of the latest academic and social research into how SEND pupils find their experience in schools and how they respond to their environment.
This has enabled architects and interior designers to adapt their approach, inspired by a greater understanding of the needs of pupils with SEND, and the results are increasingly positive with many more of today’s schools being far more inclusive compared with previous generations.
There is, however, much more that can be done. A major reason why SEND design requirements should be at the heart of every school’s new build or refurbishment project lies in the data published by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2022.
According to its research, nearly 1.5 million pupils in England have special education needs – that is 16.5% of the total number of English pupils – and it is possible that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a similar proportion.
So, with 1 in 6 children potentially being affected to a greater extent by their school environment, it is important to consider all aspects of the design, particularly for children who have an Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC), also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Their needs can be particularly complex but there is now substantial research from around the world to support the view that creating the right acoustic conditions inside schools is extremely beneficial to them.
What are the effects of poor classroom acoustics?
Good acoustic design is needed in schools given the overwhelming evidence we see in studies from around the world showing the ill effects of excessive noise. The danger is so significant that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares that…
“children exposed to continuous disruptive noise can experience poorer reading ability, memory and academic performance”.
There are a number of reasons why this is the case, but it stems from the fact that noise makes some children become disengaged with the learning process when they can’t hear what’s being said by teachers. Noise interferes with children’s ability to process language, it impairs concentration, reduces speech intelligibility and increases incidences of ‘dysfunctional behaviour’.
Its effects extend beyond the classroom, with studies showing that noisy conditions result in children having elevated blood pressure, increased stress levels and disrupted sleep patterns.
Why does noise affect SEN students more?
SEN students may be affected by numerous conditions including visual or permanent hearing impairment, speech, language and communication difficulties or an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).
Of particular importance is to consider design for children with ASD, whose needs can be particularly complex, and noise can affect them significantly given the potential for ‘sensory overload’.
This results from difficulty processing everyday sensory information through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch – a common issue for students with ASD having difficulty with auditory processing. Hence substantial international research supports the view that creating the right acoustic conditions inside schools is extremely beneficial to ASD students.
What are the acoustic standards for classrooms? Ensuring compliance with BB93
Understanding how the classroom environment needs to be designed acoustically to make the most positive impact on the performance of children with an ASC is crucial if they are to reach their full potential and thrive. This is something recognised in Building Bulletin 93 (BB93), which sets out minimum acoustic performance standards of school buildings with guidance on how to comply with relevant sections within the Building Regulations.
“Pupils with hearing impairment, autism and other special needs are often very sensitive to specific types of noise, particularly those with strong tonal, impulsive or intermittent characteristics. This should be taken into consideration in the design of areas which may be used by such children.”
This guidance reflects the risk that pupils with autism can suffer as a result of sensory overload. Children with autism will often have difficulty processing everyday sensory information through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. But one common abnormality is auditory processing, which is why the school design must consider the risk of excessive noise transferring between individual rooms, from external sources and building up inside rooms.
Acoustic best practice in design
In order to create classrooms, break-out spaces, communal areas and specialist learning zones with a sense of calm and avoid the potential for the environment being an ‘assault on their senses’ that could create confusion and fear, we need to think holistically.
The design and separating walls, floors and ceilings must be effective at minimising sound transmission, and there are numerous ways to achieve this, including by applying a fully tested system to meet the construction type. Hush Acoustics offers a wide variety of acoustic control systems, details of which can be found on the acoustic systems page.
However, one area that is often overlooked is the potential for excessive noise within rooms as a result of sound reverberation.
Any design ambitions to create a school which provides a safe, pleasant and stimulating environment, well suited to support the curricular, social and leisure needs of pupils, can be quickly undermined, particularly for pupils with autism, because of the extent of hard materials used in internal spaces.
Sound reverberation results inside a room when there is relatively little opportunity for sound waves to be absorbed. Soft furnishings and carpets are excellent materials for absorbing sound waves, but they are often not particularly practical in school environments where durability is key in order to minimise cleaning and maintenance requirements.
Hence hard surfaces like tiles, wooden floors and blinds have become the go-to materials for fit-outs. Unfortunately, with these types of materials, sound waves simply reflect back into a room, and this is compounded in rooms which feature wooden furniture, plastered walls and large areas of glazing.
Best practice must, therefore, involve a clear acoustic assessment at an early stage of the design and fit-out process to forecast the potential for reverberation.
The good news is that reverberation can be effectively addressed using sound absorber panels, provided a professional acoustic survey is conducted, including after the building project is complete and the school is in use.
In order to determine how many acoustic panels are needed and where they should be positioned, an acoustic survey must be carried out first. This involves getting key information like the room
dimensions, its capacity and uses, and measuring the reverberation time (RT) prior to any acoustic upgrades being carried out.
This data can be used to calculate how much additional sound absorption will be needed to sufficiently reduce the RT. This determines how many panels will be needed and where they should
be fitted for the best results.
Absorber panels are often installed on walls, but this can be an issue in classrooms where the wall space is used for displays, whiteboards or TV screens, or where its extent is limited due to the room
featuring lots of windows or doors. Hence why ceiling ceiling-mounted sound absorber panels are a popular choice in school buildings.
How can I upgrade a classroom for an SEN student?
Whilst it is best practice to have all school classrooms treated acoustically so the level of reverberation and echo is safe, many school buildings are yet to be upgraded. One catalyst for acoustics change is the enrolment of a student whose education could suffer as a result of a noisy classroom, as was the case recently in a south London primary school.
Here, the Bird in Bush Primary School – formerly known as Camelot Primary School – was welcoming an SEN student following its merger with a sister school. The school’s head teacher had previously addressed reverberation issues for this student in the former building and the same upgrade was needed to ensure they would be able to realise their potential in their new environment.
The school approached Hush Acoustics, who had previously worked with them to reduce reverberation in their dining hall, who proposed the installation of 40x Hush Absorber 50 panels on the ceiling soffit. It was a solution that reduced the RT from a relatively high level of 3.8s to 0.8s – a reduction that will be extremely beneficial to the school’s new Year 6 students.