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Scientists and Designers Develop Pioneering Classroom Environment to Engage Autistic Children

07.03.2007
The standard of education for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be improved by better classroom design, but often not enough attention is given to their needs. Now, researchers Coventry University's Design Ergonomics Applied Research Group have developed a new environment that is engaging autistic children in schools through digital technology.

Experts from Coventry University have designed the first low cost education and activity area for children with autism that can be used in mainstream schools. The environment is enabling teachers to educate and integrate children with special needs within conventional schools.

Over 100 primary and secondary school children in Birmingham and Coventry have successfully tested and used the high-tech (fixed and portable) teaching and learning spaces.

Autistic spectrum disorders touch the lives of over 500,000 UK families, and around 75% of people with autism have learning disabilities. In turn, sufferers need specialist education to maximise their skills.

People with autism suffer from problems with social interaction, social communication, and imagination. The best time to break through the impairments and help them connect with the world is when children are young, and this motivated the researchers to discover novel ways to use technology and space to improve their engagement.

A survey of 500 children with ASD revealed that they have a wider variety of sensory triggers than originally thought. In response to this, the system developed can be tailored for individual needs. Based around the senses, the setting engages children through vision, sound, movement and touch.

The multi-sensory environments use the latest multimedia computer technology and connect with children in new ways. The software that controls the system is simple and intuitive, so that teachers can use it without technical support.

The system is comprised of a computer, tailor made software, a projector, a video camera and sound speakers. To provide a safe, neutral environment traditional classroom strip lighting is swapped for daylight bulbs and an LED lighting system, and hypo allergenic marmoleum flooring and a padded projection screen where installed. The rooms are painted white, and black blinds block out light and noise from outside.

Improvements in users have included greater levels of engagement with other people, for example, improved communication with their peers. Teachers and parents have also noted that the children develop a better relationship with their school routine and improve their performance in mixed ability classes.

Dr Andree Woodcock, from Coventry University’s Design Ergonomics Applied Research Group, said: "Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights. Children with autism are often the ‘invisible pupils’, placed in inappropriate school environments that don't meet their needs. Project Spectrum is the first affordable space that can provide all children with a safe environment that can become part of everyday life."

Darryl Georgiou, from Coventry University’s School of Art and Design, added: “We have been careful not to overload children with bright colours or noise, while providing a space where they can develop their skills. Feedback on ‘Project Spectrum’ from parents, teachers and the children has been incredibly positive. More importantly, there have been ground-breaking steps made in developing the ability of autistic children to communicate.

“The tailor made software has helped frenetic children relax and become more focused. All the children had fun and enjoyed ‘being in control’ of the software and their environment.”

For further information contact: Jenny Murray, Communications Management, Tel: 01727 733 889, Email: jenny@communicationsmanagement.co.uk or Dr Andree Woodcock, Coventry University, Design Ergonomics Applied Research Group, Tel: 02476 887 832

The paper “Designing from requirements: a case study of Project Spectrum” by Woodcock, A, Georgiou, D, Jackson, J, and Woolner, A, is available from Jenny Murray, Email: jenny@communicationsmanagement.co.uk

Jenny Murray | alfa
Further information:
http://www.communicationsmanagement.co.uk

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