Sensory Considerations When Teaching and Setting Up the Classroom
Children with autism often have difficulty organizing sensory input. Responses to sensory input
can range from an overload sensory response (hypersensitive) to an underload sensory
response (hyposensitive). These responses occur as a result of the child experiencing difficulty
trying to interpret their environment. Because children with autism have difficulty processing
sensory stimuli, hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity of sensory input can cause stress, anxiety,
Types of sensory input to be aware of in the classroom- auditory, visual, tactile, smell, taste and
It is especially important to be aware of possible sensitivies in the classroom environment as
difficulty organizing sensory input can markedly decrease a child’s ability to sustain focused
Sensory Considerations When Teaching:
1. Auditory Sensitivities
a. The use of headphones or earplugs can be used to muff extraneous auditory
stimuli and help focus the child on tasks at hand.
i. If necessary, the child can use headphones to play claming music during
auditory overloaded activities.
b. The child should be warned of any fire drills before they happen. It is best to put
events like this on the child’s daily schedule.
c. Auditory prompting and directions should be kept to a minimum, as it can be
overwhelming. Visual cues can be used as an alternative to help children
understand what would be presented orally.
2. Visual Sensitivities
a. Lights are a major source of sensitivity for children experiencing difficulty
organizing sensory input
i. Natural light is usually least irritating to children, so it is helpful to allow
as much natural light to enter the classroom as possible.
ii. When using florescent lights, keep them at a muted or less than highest
1. It is also especially important to be cautious of switching the lights
from off to on. Always warn students of a light change. It might
be helpful to have them prepare by covering their eyes.
3. Tactile Sensitivities
a. The child may be given access to a “fiddle-basket.” This basket or bucket will
contain small items for the child to manipulate, such as stress balls, clothespins,
Bend Bands etc. The basket can be used to focus the child’s attention during
time when the teacher is lecturing or reading aloud.
4. Taste and Smell Sensitivies
a. Children should bring their own lunch and snack in order to avoid any special
b. Teachers should take care to avoid any pungent or fragrant odors or perfume in
order to avoid an olfactory sensitivity.
5. Movement Sensitivies
a. Classroom transitions such as going to/from lunch, going to/from recess,
changing class periods etc. can be difficult for some children. It can be helpful to
allow a child to leave earlier to later that the rest of the students.
**Use of a “quiet space/area” can be an option for students to go when they feel overwhelmed
by any stimulus. This space can be used to decrease sensory overload and increase self-
calming. This space should be clearly marked and contain objects that are calming to the child.
Setting up the Classroom:
The physical structure of the classroom can provide environmental organization for student
with autism. Clear physical and visual boundaries can be helpful to clarify where one space
ends and another begins. Physical structure can also be used to minimize visual and auditory
Common Classroom problems:
1. Large, wide-open spaces can be difficult for children with autism.
a. Clear boundaries can be defined by arranging furniture, the use of carpet
squares, or utilization of colored tape.
i. Boundaries can help a child organize what happens in each area of the
room, where the areas begin and end, as well as how to get to the area
by the most direct route.
2. Classrooms often contain many visual distractions.
a. Painting the walls and ceiling of a classroom a muted color can help reduce
b. Sheets and curtains can be used to cover shelves that display classroom
materials can help reduce distraction
i. Sheets or curtains can also be used to cover equipment like computers or
TVs when not in use.
c. Storing material in a closed closet or additional room can also reduce classroom
d. Controlling the amount of light entering a classroom with blinds, shades, or
curtains can reduce the distraction of lighting.
3. Classrooms often contain auditory distractions.
a. Using carpeting, lowered ceilings, acoustical tiles, or placing foam around the PA
system can reduce auditory distractions.
4. Disorganization can be distracting to children with autism.
a. Children with autism require a structured environment. Organization and
knowledge of how the classroom is organized will help a child be able to navigate
the classroom on a daily basis.
b. Visual schedules placed in a central location will also help the child mentally
organize the day’s activities.
Written by Susan Stokes under a contract with CESA 7 and funded by a discretionary grant from the Wisconsin
Department of Public Instruction.