Zoning within one space: mostafa’s unique experiment

Zoning within one space: mostafa’s unique experiment

‘Zoning’ is a concept applied to the ordering of spaces of an entire building, but also on the scale of one space, such as a living room or a classroom. (See zoning.)

Magda Mostafa who probably introduced the ‘zoning’ concept in this sense, describes such a small-scale application which is also called ‘compartmentalization’ or ‘spatial sequencing’.
She conducted an experiment which, as far as we know, is the only one in which the effect of any design measure specifically taken for people with autism, was established through empirical research.

Mostafa compared two groups of 6 year olds, each in very similar classrooms in the same school. In one – the ‘experimental’ – classroom, measures were taken and none in the other – ‘control’ – classroom.
The measures entailed a reorganization of the spatial layout of the classroom. With the aid of folding screens and cupboards, “stations” or separate defined zones, were created in the class, including an “escape space” which acted as a haven for times of sensory imbalance in the children.

By placing a child in this zone or ‘escape place’ sensory and/or social over-stimulation could be limited, either as a preventive measure or after over-stimulation had already started. In this way, a predictable environment was created in the learning space which catered to the child’s need for routine. The child enters the shielded space in which the furniture, the teacher and the activities are highly constant over time, so the predictability increases. This ‘compartmentalization’ confines the limits of the sensory environment with which the child interacts during any given class activity. This physical compartmentalization of activities also helps decrease visual distractions, and limits fields of peripheral vision.

After no more than twelve weeks it appeared these limited measures – only implemented in the classroom – yielded spectacular results. Attention span improved considerably and was lengthened by a factor of 2.4, an improvement not observed in the control group. Likewise, the response time was shortened by a factor of 4.4 and the frequency of ‘self-stimulatory behavior’ decreased from 2.8 to 1.3. It’s noteworthy that self-stimulatory behavior is at the core of one of the three main features of autism, e.g. stereotypical patterns of behavior. So even though this last result was not as extraordinary as the changes in the other observations, it’s still uniquely significant.

This subject is closely related with the theme ‘time-out spaces’. In it a few other authors of what we have dubbed ‘the core literature’ have spoken out about shielded or separate spaces in, outside or at the borders of classrooms.


‘An Architecture for Autism: Concepts of design intervention for the autistic user’, In: Archnet-IJAR, International Journal of Architectural Research 2(2008) 1 (March) 189-211.
*empirical research
That is: proper effect-research with an experimental and a control condition and outcome criteria which were formulated in advance. Not to be confused with much weaker forms of research in which users of buildings are retrospectively questioned about their satisfaction or experiences. Such evaluative research has been done in this field, but is still exceptional.