Sensory Stress in Primary Schools: Not Just a Problem for Autistic Children
Objectives: To combine objective environmental data with self-report data from pupils to assess the impact of sensory stress in primary schools on both autistic and neurotypical children.
Methods: The sensory audit technique involves acquiring data on potential visual, auditory and olfactory sensory stressors. Data were obtained using cameras, light meters, sound level meters, recording devices and trained human inspectors. In addition 45 children (17 in the ASN school and 28 in the mainstream school) took part in “sensory workshops” during which they were asked questions about sensory stress both in general and at their school. Additional data collected included parent-reported autistic trait levels (using the Children’s AQ; Auyeung et al, 2008) and parent-reported sensory reactivity using the parents’ version of the Glasgow Sensory Questionnaire (Robertson & Simmons, 2013). Transcripts of the focus groups/interviews were analysed using Thematic Analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
Results: Preliminary analysis has revealed that most children, whether autistic or neurotypical, reported issues related to sensory stress. Particular examples included distraction and discomfort caused by strong sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds, difficulties tolerating noise in the busy school canteen at lunchtime, and unpleasant smells from toilets and changing rooms. Curiously, younger (typical) children (4-8 years old) preferred busy, colourful classrooms (“Because it looks like a party room!”) although older children (9-11 years old) preferred a less stimulating visual environment (“I like how it’s tidy”). Future correlational analysis between objective measurements obtained during the sensory audit and the subjective reports from the children will further clarify the details of these sensory preferences and dislikes.
Conclusions: These data underline that sensory stress is problematic for both autistic and neurotypical children in school environments. Given the clear data from parent/teacher-reports that there are differences in sensory reactivity between autistic and neurotypical children it could be that methods for coping with sensory stress amongst neurotypical children are more effective, although potentially becoming internalized and manifesting differently as, for example, anxiety (Robertson & Simmons, 2015). Clearly, careful consideration should be given to the sensory environment in all schools, with a particular focus on the provision of quieter, less intense spaces for the most sensitive children.
See more of: Sensory, Motor, and Repetitive Behaviors and Interests