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Designing Optimal Learning Environments for Children with Developmental Disabilities, Autism, or Other Behavior Challenges

Designing Optimal Learning Environments for Children with Developmental Disabilities, Autism, or Other Behavior Challenges

Carol L. Spears, M.S., CCC-SLP, Vicki L. Turner, D.M., M.A., CCC-SLP

February 2, 2012
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Individuals with developmental disabilities, autism, and those with behavioral challenges frequently display behaviors that disrupt the way they learn, communicate, and socialize. This article examines the benefits of organizing the environment to minimize these behaviors and to optimize opportunities for effective communication. It describes how to design a learning environment, including living spaces, to improve behavior, learning, communication, and social skills. It also describes how educators and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can support expressive communication skills through visual support strategies and symbolic communication systems.

Structuring the Learning Environment to Improve Learning, Behavior, and  Organization

Structured, organized classrooms and living environments may assist children with developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, behavior problems, or any other behavior that adversely affects learning, socializing, or communicating. Whether the intent is to improve a child’s adaptation to family routines and expectations, or to improve behavior and learning at school, designing the environment with forethought is a way of accomplishing both ends.

Appropriately engineering the school or home settings allows individuals with an array of behaviors, such as the following, to benefit:

  • Individuals who exhibit organizational and directionality challenges.
  • Those with memory deficits, particularly memory of locations or the sequential order of tasks and schedules.
  • Individuals with auditory processing disorders or sensitivity to auditory stimuli.
  • Those with impairment of the visual, tactile, vestibular, olfactory, and proprioceptive senses.
  • Individuals with social issues who may be rigid in rituals and routines.
  • Children with receptive language deficits who have difficulty comprehending rules and expectations.
  • Individuals who are distractible and need fewer distractions during work tasks.
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carol l spears

Carol L. Spears, M.S., CCC-SLP

Carol L. Spears, MA, CCC-SLP, is a licensed speech-language pathologist who specializes in Alternative/Augmentative Communication, Autism, visual supports, and physically restructuring the environment.  She has over 25 years of experience in an urban school district offering evaluation, therapy, training, and consultation services.  The last 15 years, Ms. Spears has provided services exclusively to individuals with autism and significant developmental delays.  She is skilled at adapting evaluation and intervention materials/equipment for the specific needs of the individual.  Ms. Spears is partner in the company, Communication by Design Specialists, LLC.  She is also co-author of the book, Rising to new heights of communication and learning for children with autism.


vicki l turner

Vicki L. Turner, D.M., M.A., CCC-SLP

Vicki L. Turner, DM, MA, CCC-SLP, is a Speech Language Pathologist, Assistive Technologist, Alternative/Augmentative Communication Specialist (AAC), and author. Dr. Turner has interests in evidence-based practice, mental health issues, autism and related developmental disorders, visual supports, and physically structuring the environment to enhance behavior, communication, academic, and social skills. Dr. Turner is Founder and Partner of Communication by Design Specialists, LLC, with a goal of maximizing client potential through interventions, IEP development, AAC assessment, and other individualized services, while offering training, resources, and support to families, educators, and members of the community.



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