Elementary and higher education policies developed by autistic experts and founded on research can fundamentally enhance the accessibility of the learning environment for autistic students throughout their educational career. Although autistic students have the potential to perform successfully academically, one major barrier to their success is that the educational environment is filled with anxiety-provoking sensory input. We call on educational institutions to do more to positively affect the outcomes for autistic students and those with sensory modulation challenges by reducing sensory-related barriers to learning in higher education. In particular, we call on higher education institutions to consider the myriad barriers that autistic students encounter at this stage of their education and the sudden, inherent lack of support and understanding once they leave the secondary education environment. Sensory modulation challenges experienced in primary and secondary education environments do not disappear in tertiary education settings.
Sensory modulation challenges are commonly associated with autism and are an important barrier to quality of life.1 Recently, hypo- and hyper-reactivity to sensory stimuli have been outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, criteria for autism and have brought increased attention to the individual sensory challenges in this population.2 Researchers have begun to provide insight into the biological mechanisms underlying sensory modulation challenges, with a focus on sensory hyper-responsivity. Neuroimaging studies have shown that during exposure to aversive sensory stimulation, sensory hyper-responsivity in autistic youth is associated with reduced habituation in brain regions associated with attention, salience, and threat response.3,4 Autistic youth with lower hyper-responsivity also show atypically high prefrontal downregulation of the amygdala, which suggests that they are exerting extra effort to avoid behavioral sensory responses, including irritability, meltdowns, and covering ears.3,4 Elevated physiologic responses, such as heart rate, to aversive sensory stimuli have also been found among autistic individuals,5 indicating that heightened arousal may explain the high co-occurrence between anxiety and sensory hyper-responsivity.6 Thus, emerging understanding about the biological mechanisms underlying sensory modulation challenges supports the idea that sensory hyper-responsivity is distracting, exhausting, and anxiety provoking.
Higher education environments are composed of competing sensory inputs, including bright lights, the classroom layout, loud gathering areas, and bombardment of smells. Autistic and non-autistic college students report heightened sensory reactivity to higher education environments.7 However, autistic students report that the lack of respite from sensory input is a barrier to learning that often triggers stress and anxiety and even leads to an inability to continue pursuing higher education.7 In response, a recent study with autistic participants in Canadian universities showed that 78% who completed interviews and 87% who completed questionnaires reported experiencing sensory barriers in their classrooms, hallways, and campus grounds that directly affected their learning.8 Researchers, faculty, and staff have reported recognizing that sensory barriers have an impact on students’ educational outcomes and understanding the importance of accommodating the physical environment to provide accessible learning.7,9 Although faculty, staff, and students in higher education generally agree on the importance of reducing disabling sensory barriers to learning for autistic students, more needs to be done to improve the sensory environment and promote inclusivity. An added effect of an improved sensory environment in tertiary education is the development of innovations for the elementary and secondary school environments. For example, Bellevue College’s Neurodiversity Navigators aim to create inclusive environments for autistic students and neurodivergence by providing resources for them and educating faculty about supporting these students’ neurologic differences. Similarly, Landmark College is specifically designed to create a space for autistic and neurodivergent students that provides therapeutic supports, including service animals that respond to sensory barriers affecting students’ learning.
Autistic experts and sensory processing researchers can help to inform simple, cost-effective policies to remedy these challenges, such as offering various sensory choices in classrooms, routinely dimming or turning off lights in designated areas, and allowing autistic students to reserve seats where there are fewer sensory challenges. Outside the classroom, universities and colleges can offer areas of respite on campus, such as quiet zones. They can also educate the student body and faculty about supporting the learning of students with sensory processing challenges. Colleges and universities have the opportunity to be innovative in their policies and practices and include autistic students and sensory challenges in creating evidenced-based, inclusive environments that support learning with reduced anxiety and feelings of sensory overload.
The authors thank Dr Emily Hotez for reviewing the manuscript. They also thank the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health.
Dr Waisman wrote the initial manuscript on the basis of their area of expertise; Ms Alba and Dr Green provided input on the basis of their areas of expertise and edited the initial manuscript; and all authors approved the final manuscript as submitted and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.
FUNDING: No external funding.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST DISCLOSURES: The authors have indicated they have no conflicts of interest relevant to this article to disclose.