Cheryl Bedding looks at environmental audits for children with sensory integration needs.

Environments tell us what to do, and they can be arranged to make you feel and behave in a certain way. Shops and restaurants enter the mind of the consumer to sell their products. A restaurant may want a fast turnover of people, so they have hard plastic fixed seats. Supermarkets put the milk at the furthest end of the shop, to make you walk past other items that may catch your eye. They may move food around in the store to make you change your usual route and discover other products. 

How you feel in any environment will affect how you behave, how long you stay, how much you engage with it and whether you want to return. The same applies to children. For children with sensory integration needs, it influences them even more.

In creating an autism friendly environment, we must try to reduce the negative impact of sensory differences and enhance the positive effects. Environments can have a physical and emotional impact on us and for young children with diverse needs, the emotional impact can result in a child feeling anxious, stressed, unengaged and dysregulated. If we get it right, they are more likely to feel calm, connected, with a sense of belonging and able to be their true authentic self. 

Anxiety can be a significant barrier to children’s mental health, engagement, participation and can result in children isolating themselves, masking their self regulation behaviours, and preventing them from thriving. An environment that is unpredictable, noisy and over stimulating, is likely to trigger behaviours that stem from an overwhelmed nervous system and the body’s natural response to move into the fight or flight response. These observable behaviours often result in sanctions or consequences when our perspective as adults does not match or provide insight into these responses. We react to what we see, not what causes the behaviour.

An environmental audit is a way of assessing the physical environment to ensure that it provides a safe and supportive learning space for all students. Noise, temperature, lighting and seating arrangements all have an impact on learning and participation. Adult and child perceptions of their environment may differ. What some people take for granted can be overwhelming and upsetting for others, and an effective audit can support a child’s emotional development and wellbeing. 

Audits are not one-off exercises, but a continual process of detection and reflection to determine if an environment is supportive and enabling for the individual children it serves. This requires adapting and meeting the individual needs of each child and not the label or diagnosis. An audit might include questions such as ‘how is Fred responding to the current routine?’ or ‘how is Emily reacting to the sound of the music for tidy up time?’, or ‘is George engaging in story time in a large group?’.

A sensory audit requires a little time and effort but can have a far reaching impact on a child and their family, while preventing behaviours which result in stress and anxiety for the child and the educator. 

The understanding that children can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive is a good place to start when considering visual stimuli, smells, touch and pressures, auditory stimuli, a child’s expectations, transitions and accessibility. We can aim for the surroundings to be ‘just right’ or as close as possible to an environment that can meet the needs of all.

Despite regular auditing and adaptations, children with diverse needs may still require a calm, quiet place of escape, a space of their own, a place that offers an illusion of privacy where they can decompress and self-regulate if feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed. When auditing your environments, consider where and how you could provide this. Where can you place a tent, or little corner nook for relaxation and comfort, surrounded by familiar objects, self-soothing resources and dim lighting, offering an opportunity to bring their nervous system back to a state of calm. 

We can all too easily become used to an environment, so that we become unaware of how it might be impacting on children. By being alert to this potential complacency, we can either schedule regular audits, or spend some time experiencing our surroundings as Fred or Emily.

Cheryl Bedding
Author: Cheryl Bedding

Cheryl Bedding
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Cheryl Bedding is a consultant and an award winning trainer working nationally and the parent of two neurodivergent children. She is an advocate for true inclusive practice, enabling ALL children to be heard, to be given the tools and connections to thrive and be accepted for their uniqueness.

Facebook/Instagram: @aperion_training
LinkedIn: @cherylbedding



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