Autism Lab

Deep inside the quietest room on campus, 5-year-old Camden Robbins wrinkles up his nose and frowns at the ceiling, looking for the source of a sudden noise. He’s quickly back at play, seemingly untroubled, but on the other side of the darkened glass, researcher Shireen Kanakri points to red spikes ticking across a computer graph.

“Sometimes kids are engaged but their bodies tell us a story,” she says. While Camden animatedly describes his Halloween costume inside the little room, his blood pressure and his heart rate have increased in response to the 55-decibel noises.

Kanakri’s research will shed light on the effects noise, color, and lighting have on children, specifically those on the autism spectrum. Camden is not on the spectrum, but his results and those of others like him will be compared with results from children who do suffer from autism.

The $200,000 Design Research Lab was built mostly with grant funding. Kanakri, who holds a PhD in architecture, uses the lab to record how children respond to changes in noise, lighting, and colors. At the end of the two-hour play session, parents leave with recommendations about how each environmental change affects their child.

Often parents are the ones playing with their child inside the lab while Kanakri monitors them outside. On the day we observed, senior Leah Mattingly built a sand castle with Camden and played catch while he chattered happily about Michael Jackson videos.

Outside the controlled environment of the room, mother Audrey Robbins, says Camden adjusts easily to changes in his surroundings, but she wonders how his results would compare to those of his older brother who prefers a more quiet and predictable environment.

“As a parent, it’s really interesting to see how outside influences affect their learning,” she says.

Schools might be able to help children learn by adding acoustical panels, moving children on the autism spectrum away from noisy air conditioning ducts, or by replacing fluorescent lights with LEDs. Those are some of the questions Kanakri’s research may answer. In addition to her observations in the Design Research lab, she has conducted several studies in schools where she has found some surprisingly noisy classrooms. Too-noisy surroundings have been demonstrated to cause increases in autistic behaviors such as hand flapping, blinking, and repetitive speech. Too-quiet environments, however, sometimes produce the same results, so researchers are still trying to pinpoint optimal conditions.