Follow the Green Path: The Experiences of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in a Wayfinding Study

Presented by: Julie Irish

“Why do you get lost so often? . . . I think it’s this: we don’t really know where we ought to be.” This 13 –year-old boy describes the difficulties that he and many others with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face daily (Higashada, 2013, p.93). Adults with ASD also describe how they got lost at school causing them anxiety and emphasizing that they were different compared to their peers. This exploratory research study applied the principles of evidence-based design to test a wayfinding solution using children with ASD. The outcomes could help designers make better informed design decisions. ASD is a developmental disorder affecting a child’s ability to communicate and behave in a socially acceptable manner. Many are over sensitive to their environment so that noise, lights, or smells can disturb them (APA, 2013). Although this sensitivity to the environment can impact their performance at school, to date there has been little research in this area (Khare & Mullick, 2011; Martin, 2014). This research is needed because of the increasing number of children diagnosed with ASD, currently 1:68 (CDC, 2014). The ability to wayfind is important in a school, particularly at transition times when children have to move quickly between classrooms. Wayfinding describes how humans use sensory clues from the environment to find their way around. Person-environment fit theory grounds this study and has been cited in previous research examining how children with ASD can be enabled by a suitable interior (Khare & Mullick, 2011). The research question examined was: What do children with ASD think about their experience wayfinding along the hallways in the school environment? This population is not often asked their opinion and it would be valuable knowledge for designers in their decision making process when planning wayfinding strategies in the school environment. Subjects (n=9) were a convenience sample of children with ASD aged 8-11 who attended a summer program at an elementary school in the Midwest. Subjects were randomly assigned to control and treatment groups in an experimental design. Subjects were tested whether they could find their way along an unfamiliar route in the school hallway from a set start point to a given destination. In the treatment group, subjects were tested on their ability to find their way with the assistance of wayfinding aids (colored doors, colored shapes on the floor, and signage) applied to the hallways. In Stage 1 the researcher led the subject along the route pointing out the wayfinding aids. In Stage 2 the subject was asked to lead the researcher along the route. The control group carried out the same wayfinding task along the same route but there were no wayfinding aids applied. Instead, the researcher pointed out existing features in the hallway. Since this population varies in individual characteristics it was also considered important to ask each subject, via an interview/questionnaire, how they felt about their wayfinding experience. A mixed methods approach to data collection increased validity of findings, including observation, behavioral mapping, video and audio recordings, and questionnaires. Findings were that subjects in the treatment group were able to discriminate colors of wayfinding aids, and remembered shapes on the floor and signage, to a greater extent than subjects in the control group. Some subjects remembered surprising details in the environment, in accordance with psychology literature that describes how children with ASD fail to see the “big picture” but focus on small details. By engaging children with ASD who do not always have a voice, this evidence-based research found out what they felt about their experience wayfinding in a school hallway. Although the findings are not generalizable they could be replicated in a larger study. The results could help designers learn more about the wayfinding needs of this population to help them implement suitable design solutions.


  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
  • Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2014). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children ages 8 years - Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2010. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Repor
  • Higashida, N. (2013). The reason I jump (K. A. Yoshida & D. Mitchell). New York, NY: Random House.
  • Khare, R., & Mullick, A. (2009). Incorporating the behavioral dimension in designing inclusive learning environment for autism. ArchNet International Journal of Architectural Research, 3(3), 45-64.
  • Martin, C. (2014). Exploring the impact of the design of the physical classroom environment on young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. doi:10/1111/1471-3802.12092
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