Spatial characteristics of classrooms

Recommendation 40
Construct a clear and spacious classroom with pleasant spatial properties

Chapter (theme)
Architectural spaces (classrooms)

Because of
cognitive shifting, Central coherence, sensory processing

In order to
create a familiar and safe learning situation.

Students on the spectrum predominantly prefer their own spot with a good overview by, for instance, sitting with their backs to a wall without windows or doors. This has to do with often lessened powers of imagination, making windows and doors one cannot see sources of unpredictability: someone might suddenly pop up out of nowhere, causing insecurity and disquiet. This problem is akin to trouble with ‘shifting’. In classrooms it’s usually difficult to meet all these limitations. Therefore additional measures can be taken such as using folding screens. See for this recommendation 30 ‘Zones in the classroom’. Seating arrangements in the classroom make much difference too of course.
Because autistic students usually have trouble conceiving an overall picture (weak central coherence), the layout of the classroom should be logical and easy to ‘read’. (What interior design can contribute to this, is dealt with in the relevant chapter, see recommendation 92.)

For classrooms of younger students with more severe autism McAllister & Maguire make a number of recommendations. They employ the term ‘volumetric expression’ for pleasantly experienced spatial characteristics. They state: “People feel, and therefore can react differently, within separate spaces of different character. (…) Making a space more intimate by increasing the sense of enclosure or by lowering the ceiling level can aid in promoting a sense of calm. Conversely, increasing the openness or raising the ceiling level of an area can increase the sense of freedom, encouraging greater physical activity and expression.”

Space (and intimacy)

The quote above hints at the tension between ‘large’ and ‘secluded’. On the one hand big is good. Five out of seven authors of the, so called ‘core literature’ emphasize ‘generous space standards’.  The larger the space, the less concentrated are the stimuli to which one is exposed, thereby minimizing the risk of sensory overload. On the other hand spaciousness may not stand in the way of intimacy. One should have the opportunity to withdraw and to organize ones own secluded space. To this end – as already mentioned – creating more or less secluded areas in the classroom is one of the possibilities. (See recommendation 92.)


*McAllister & Maguire

McAllister, Keith and Barry Maguire, ‘Design considerations for the autism spectrum disorder-friendly Key Stage 1 classroom’, In: Support for Learning 27(2012)3, 103-112.
 core literature
See point 5 here.