Inside a quiet room on the Ball State University campus, 5-year-old Camden wrinkles up his nose and frowns at the ceiling, looking for the source of a sudden noise. A few seconds later he’s back at play, seemingly untroubled, but on the other side of the darkened glass, autism researcher Shireen Kanakri closely watches the scene.
Minutes later, as Camden is in the middle of describing his costume from last Halloween, more sudden noises occur. Monitors show the boy’s heart rate and blood pressure shoot upwards in response.
While Camden and other children may not show an outward reaction to the noises, “their bodies tell us a story,” said Dr. Kanakri, an assistant professor of interior design in Ball State’s College of Architecture and Planning, who is studying autism. “Here we see that the red spikes jumping up and down across a computer graph. There is evidence through changing behaviors and varying blood pressure rates that a child’s environment is significantly impacted by his or her environment.”
Dr. Kanakri is leading the Healthy Autism Design Lab. Located in the Applied Technology College building, the lab creates different sensory effects to help researchers observe children’s reaction to different environments. Several CAP undergraduates are assisting her research, as well as an undergraduate psychological science student and an audiology doctoral student.
Spaces that support a child’s needs
“When I started working on my doctorate in 2008, I noticed there were huge facilities called autism centers where I was expecting to see a very specific environment,” Dr. Kanakri recalled. “However, I saw rooms with gray walls and large windows — or rooms without any windows. After speaking with architects who designed these facilities, I found there were no guidelines that would allow them to design rooms just for this special population.”
She designed her research on the effects of sensory stimuli on children with autism in the hopes that her findings lead to potential design solutions for creating spaces that better support those children and their needs.
In the last year, the Healthy Autism Design Lab has expanded the number of participants — ages range from two to 22 — with about 45 families involved in her research. Nearly half are associated with Ball State, but families from nearby Indianapolis and Cincinnati also are participating.
As part of the research, parents are brought in to play with their child inside the lab while the researcher monitors them outside. Dr. Kanakri 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 analysis provided by the researchers on how each environmental change affected their child.
Outside the controlled environment of the room, Camden’s mother said her son 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.
Camden is not on the spectrum, but his results and those of others like him will be compared with results from children who have been diagnosed with autism.
“As a parent, it’s really interesting to see how outside influences affect learning,” Camden’s mother said.
“We are sharing reports with parents at the end of each experiment to let them know the best acoustics, lighting that their child needs,” said Dr. Kanakri. “This will help parents, teachers, physicians and other providers set up the best environment.”
Pinpointing optimal conditions
In addition to her observations in the lab, she has conducted several studies in schools where she has discovered 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 the professor is still trying to pinpoint optimal conditions.
In analyzing the impact of colors and lights on children behavior, Dr. Kanakri found that “specific colors affect the children very positively, while other colors might affect them in a negative way.”
“It’s the same for lighting,” she noted. “Our lab is equipped to test the effect of LED and fluorescent lights on children. And there were hugely different impacts of using the two different lights types on children’s performance and behavior.”
The researcher believes that schools might be able to help children learn by adding acoustical panels, moving children on the autism spectrum away from noises such as blowing air conditioning ducts, or by replacing fluorescent lights with LEDs.
Dr. Kanakri said she hopes the data developed through the lab will ultimately be used for the benefit of families everywhere, helping them create specific environments that improve their children’s quality of life.
The Healthy Autism Design Lab, led by Professor Shireen Kanakri, researches how children between the ages of 2 and 18 years, respond to changes in noise, light, and colors within their environment. Participants receive an assessment of their child and a recommendation of the environmental factors most beneficial to their child’s wellbeing. Interested parents can contact Shireen Kanakri for more information.