Finding a Way: Aids to Support Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Presented by: Julie E. N. Irish, Dr. B. Martinson

Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have described the difficulties they had as children finding their way around school. ASD is a lifelong developmental disorder which has risen at a concerning rate to affect 1:68 children (CDC, 2014). To date, research has focused on educational interventions and learning strategies to support children with ASD in school but there has been little research into how the design of the physical environment could support them. Since we know that children with ASD can be especially sensitive to their environment (APA, 2013), this is an overlooked area of study. In addition, existing research is often anecdotal and lacks an evidence basis (Martin, 2014; Shabha & Gaines, 2011). This research took an evidence-based approach to design an exploratory experiment to determine whether the addition of wayfinding aids, (colored doors, colored shapes on floors, and signage), in an elementary school hallway could help children with ASD to find their way to a given destination with minimal assistance and increased independence. This could potentially improve their wayfinding ability, promote their independence, and save the resources of teachers’ aides who frequently escort children with ASD around the school. Another important aim of the study was to find out what children with ASD who took part thought about their experience wayfinding along the route in the school hallways. Their opinions and perspectives could be valuable to inform designers when they are considering implementing wayfinding aids in schools. The theory behind the research is Person-environment (PE) fit theory which examines what contributes a good fit between an individual and their environment. According to PE fit theory, if a person is well-matched to their environment it can have a positive effect on them (Kristof-Brown & Guay, 2011). This research poster outlines the procedure for setting up and carrying out the experiment. School District and Institutional Review Board approval were required prior to obtaining parental consent. Study logistics were discussed with teaching and facilities management staff and a suitable site identified. A wayfinding route was found that subjects were not familiar with as their prior knowledge could confound the study. Subjects were selected from a convenience sample of children diagnosed with ASD aged 8-11 years old who attended a summer school at an elementary school in the US. Subjects (n=9) were randomly assigned to control or treatment groups. The study route was set up. For both groups, the subject was first given instruction and shown the way from a start point to a given destination by the researcher. Next, he/she was taken back to the start and asked to find the way on his/her own. Subjects in the control group had to find their way using existing cues in the environment. Subjects in the treatment group had to find their way with the addition of colored wayfinding aids applied along the route. A mixed methods approach was taken to data collection. School records were mined for demographic information. Observations and behavioral mapping correlated with video and audio recordings. Environmental data was collected to inform future studies, e.g. light and sound levels, colors, and materials. A post-study interview/questionnaire to all subjects aimed to find out what they felt about their wayfinding experience. Data analysis includes whether the subject successfully reached the destination or not, the time it took them, and whether they reached it directly or indirectly. The amount of assistance and independence is measured by the proximity of the researcher and the number of physical and verbal prompts given. Data from the questionnaire helps us understand the wayfinding experience of children with ASD. By documenting an evidence-based research process, this exploratory study could act as a model for other designers and researchers to follow and add to the interior design body of knowledge.


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  • Shabha, G., & Gaines, K. (2011). Therapeutically enhanced school design for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD): A comparative study of the United States and the United Kingdom. In D. Mittleman, & D. A. Middleton (Eds.), Edra 42 Proceedings (pp. 174-180). MaLean, VA: Environmenta