I have not learned which sensory issues are the most prevalent in autistic children — the research in the field of Occupational Therapy is still on-going — but from those children I’ve spoken with, noise is the first they speak about. Light, or glare from light, however, is one issue that their parents comment about.
As we watched her son play on a neighbor’s covered porch, a mother from Philly commented that she had to go to bat with the local school system because of her son’s problems with bright lights and colors. His desk sat on a brightly-colored carpet near the sunny windows. He would refuse to sit at the desk, even when the blinds were drawn. At home, his mother discovered that her son’s issues with bright lights and colors made him miserable, so she kept the lights dimmed. Together, she and her son decorated his bedroom with camouflage colors and put up heavy curtains to cut down on the light. When she spoke with her son’s teacher about the glare issue, they were able to move his school desk off of the rug and out of the bright light. Without this distraction/barrier, he became an attentive student.
Shirley Cohen, Ph.D., one of the creators of the ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorders) NEST Program in NYC, develops programs in the curriculum for autistic students with the team of professionals. Occupational therapists working on the NEST modify the classroom environment to accommodate the sensory needs of the children, as they’ve found that the children learn more easily and successfully when sensory barriers are removed. This tactic is not reserved to just the NEST program. Cohen confided, in a journal article, that they had implemented this aspect from other programs that demonstrated success, such as TEACHH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children).
It is interesting, however, that schools (and even these successful programs) take into consideration the classroom environment but NOT the outdoors, such as the playground. Playgrounds are still constructed in full sunlight, and outfitted with hardly any shade. One boy, from Levittown, told me that even though he wanted to play on the neighborhood playground, it was just too hot. “I feel bad,” he said, after we had been crawling through the hot, plastic tubes to the sliding boards. His mother added that, in the summer, she kept her son inside most of the time because of the heat and glare. “He gets so red in the face after just a few minutes.” The playground had a wooded lot next to it, so that later in the day, there was some shade. However, this occurred at the heat of the day when the play equipment got too hot to play on.
In an effort to help a local PTO install a small raised garden next to the school playground, I observed how children moved around in the area. The school board had dismissed an idea for putting the garden closer to the school, near the basketball court, because the basketball court was heavily used and the children might damage it during play. During my observations, I noticed that the only tree on the playground was located next to the basketball court. Children did, indeed, run out of the school to that area, but they didn’t play basketball. They were all standing in the shade of the lone tree. Other children lined up against the hot building, but under the overhanging roof. “Why are you standing here?” I asked them. “To be in the shade,” was their reply. “It’s too hot to play out there,” one boy added, pointing to the vacant playground.
So, we’ve come a long way. We spend thousands of dollars to erect bright, colorful playgrounds in what used to be vacant lots, old asphalt parking lots, or former cornfields. Despite this, the playgrounds are not as well used as they could — or should — be because of the glare and lack of shade.