WSU News

Student design enlarges autistic child’s world

Melissa Anderson.  (Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU News)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Talk about a twofer.
Melissa Anderson’s thesis project not only helped her earn a master’s degree in interior design from Washington State University, but it also caught the attention of some heavyweight design experts. 
autism design classroom
Design model of preschool work stations separated by a
partition displaying picture schedules. Note the chairs with
storage spaces at the bottom to cut down on clutter. (Photo
courtesy of Melissa Anderson)

Anderson, who just graduated from WSU, has been selected to showcase a poster version of her thesis at an international design conference in Providence, R.I., the end of May. Called the “Healthy + Healing Places Exhibition,” the four-day event will “highlight the power of good, smart and caring design work,” according to the website of the conference sponsor, the Environmental Design Research Association.

“I’m really excited to be part of the conference and share my research with such a diverse group of professionals and experts,” she said. Her project is “The physical environment and cognition: How characteristics of the classroom impact learning and behaviors in students with autism.”   
A new intervention?
Most people associate autism interventions with medical treatments and behavioral and play therapies. But numerous studies confirm that children with autism experience heightened sensory problems – reacting more strongly to factors such as light, sounds and visual clutter.
In her latest book, “The Autistic Brain: Thinking across the spectrum,” Temple Grandin, a renowned animal scientist who has autism, writes that sensory difficulties are one of the most debilitating features of the disorder, especially for kids.
Which means, the world can feel raw for children with autism. The whirr of a wall heater, the glare of fluorescent ceiling lights, too many people speaking in different parts of the room – all can overstimulate and distract those with autism.
Knowing this from her research, Anderson also considered the increasing number of children being diagnosed.
“The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says one in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder,” she said. “That makes understanding how distractions in the classroom affect learning that much more important.”
Anderson also recalled a former open-office job that required her to sit in a gray cubicle surrounded by jarring lights and harsh white noise generated overhead to provide privacy to workers.
“I often found it challenging to focus on my tasks while trying to ignore the constant commotion,” she said. “If sensory issues made it hard for me at my job, I wanted to know how they were impacting children on the autism spectrum in their learning environments.”
So she set out to examine how everyday sensations tied to the classroom’s physical environment impact learning and behaviors. First, she turned to Kathleen Ryan, WSU assistant professor of interior design, for feedback.
“It sounded to me like a project whose time had come,” recalled Ryan, who chaired Anderson’s thesis committee. “When it comes to understanding the relationship between children with autism and their structural environments, design research is in its early stages.”
Learning goes out the window
Anderson’s work may advance design research. Based on behavioral observations and analysis of data taken at a special education preschool with eight autistic students and eight typically developing peers, she found that factors such as lighting, noise, clutter and crowding all triggered prolonged periods of anxiety and stress. This, in turn, resulted in behavioral disturbances, more dependence on classroom staff and “a decreased ability to perceive and process information,” she concluded.
“Not only does the physical environment impact learning and cognition, but it impacts students with autism far more than their typically developing peers,” she said.
A whole new world
Pulling together her research, knowledge and skills, Anderson created a classroom design proposal that features warm accent lighting, soft white walls, goal-oriented work stations divided by partitions and chairs with underneath storage compartments to minimize clutter. See a model floor plan at  
With input from language pathologist Georgina Lynch of WSU speech and hearing sciences, Anderson addressed noise problems by proposing acoustical ceiling panels and natural sound-muffling products such as “green walls” covered with reindeer moss and small vertical gardens. Plants used in those gardens should not only reduce noise but also create visual dividers between activity centers, she said.
A supportive classroom should enable children shut off from the world to focus and engage in learning, said Anderson, thereby preparing them “for kindergarten and beyond.”
“Considering the prevalence of autism and the interest in accommodating children with the disorder, I think a lot of people will be drawn to it,” explained Ryan, who’s pleased that her student’s work will be featured at a conference of international magnitude.