Acoustic Design Considerations For Creating An Autism-Friendly Space

Apr 19, ’23


Table of Contents

Acoustic Design For Autism-Friendly Spaces

Research has shown the efficacy of sound masking technology in limiting the travel of sound in open-plan spaces.

This research showed the efficacy of sound masking in creating less distraction and disturbance, allowing more focused attention in customised autism friendly open-plan spaces.

Research has also indicated that decibel levels of below 55 db correlate with reduced behaviour indicating distress in autistic students, with distress behaviours increasing significantly at the 55-70 db range.

Although this study was conducted in a K-12 setting with a small sampling of students, it provides some of the first empirical research available on specific decibel levels for learning environments and autistic comfort.


A graph chart going from 10 to 100 average decibels (dB).

This criterion proposes controlling the acoustical environment to minimise background noise, echo and reverberation.

The level of such acoustical control should vary according to the level of user focus required within the space, as well as the skill level of its users.

For example, activities of higher focus should be allowed a higher level of acoustical control and be part of low-stimulus zones.

Provisions should also be made for different levels of acoustical control, so students can graduate from one level to the next, slowly moving towards a typical environment to avoid the “greenhouse effect”.

On the Master Planning level, this involves situating Low-Stimulus zones, particularly learning environments, away from external noise sources, such as high-traffic roads, playgrounds, sports facilities etc.

It also requires the mindful configuration, operation and material selection of integrated open spaces, such as courtyards and pedestrian spaces, to minimise echo and noise. Specific design strategies related to material selection, building systems, zoning and operation related to acoustics will be discussed throughout the guide.

Acoustical Design Interventions:

Planning Level

The Master planning level involves situating low-stimulus zones, particularly learning environments, away from external noise sources, such as high-traffic roads, playgrounds,  sports facilities etc. Sensory qualities, particularly acoustical, should be considered when planning facilities and activity distribution. 

Where unavoidable noise sources are located near low-stimulation zones such as residences, study spaces, libraries, classrooms and escape spaces, appropriate acoustical mitigation should be introduced. This can include internal wall cavity insulation, using acoustic blocks, installing sound absorbent materials on various surfaces including flooring, walls and ceilings, and using double glazing and sound absorbent blinds or curtains in window treatments. 

Macro Level: Interiors
Acoustical regulation is also needed for existing and future large open-plan interior spaces. To allocate the level of such mitigation, spaces can be classified into 3 levels: 

Low-stimulation spaces such as reading spaces in libraries, study spaces, residences and classrooms require the highest level of mitigation.

High-stimulation spaces such as dining halls and student commons require moderate mitigation and micro and personal solutions.

Transition spaces such as corridors, foyers, entrance lobbies and atriums require moderate to high mitigation depending on their surrounding sensory environment. 

Forest Filz wool felt wall acoustic Google1GCP 05
Forest Filz wool felt wall acoustic Google1GCP 05

Global Solutions

Wall-mounted sound-absorbent materials in teaching spaces and corridors can serve multiple purposes and be used as pin-up surfaces for visual materials and signage within an ordered visual pattern.

Vibe Quiet Plants installed in resting room

Quiet – Plants Acoustic Panels

Sound absorbent acoustic flooring systems are designed to reduce noise pollution in buildings by absorbing sound waves that would otherwise bounce off hard surfaces, such as concrete or wood floors. These systems typically use materials such as carpet tiles or sound absorbent vinyl to help absorb sound waves.

Carpet tiles are a popular choice for sound absorbent flooring systems because they are made from materials that are naturally sound absorbent. Carpet fibers, for example, are great at trapping and absorbing sound waves, which can help to reduce noise levels in a room.

Sound absorbent vinyl flooring is another option for acoustic flooring systems. This type of flooring is made from materials that are designed to absorb sound, such as cork, rubber, or foam. Some vinyl flooring products also include a layer of sound-absorbing underlayment, which can further enhance the sound absorbing properties of the flooring.

Baffling systems are another option for sound control in buildings. These systems typically use a series of panels or baffles to help redirect sound waves and reduce noise levels in a room. Ceiling mounted sound-absorbing panels can also be used to help reduce noise levels in a space, particularly in rooms with high ceilings where sound can easily bounce around and create echoes.

Calmtone fins

Vibe Calmtone Fins Acoustic Panel

Interiors: Micro Level

In addition to macro-level global solutions, micro-environments can be created within larger

spaces, as an oasis of calm and quiet for the use of autistic students and others needing sensory refuge.

These solutions can include:

  • Ceiling or floor-mounted installations.
  • To create small domains of acoustical control.     
  •  Again colour and visual stimulation limitations should be carefully Considered.

Calmtone Fins Ceiling Baffles Matercard 01
Calmtone Fins Ceiling Baffles Matercard 01

Freestanding seating/meeting/studying pods:

These can range from fully enclosed pods through a gradient of solutions to light individual semi-open configurations.

A blue free standing meeting pods
PARCS TOGUNA HIGH | Designed by Pearson Lloyd |

Free-Standing and Flexible Acoustical Paneling

Free-Standing and Flexible Acoustical Paneling​ can be used to configure adaptable spaces for different groups sizes from the individual to the group and for different activities from study to socialising.

Geometries and Spatial Configurations

Certain geometries will increase reverberation and echoes, particularly when multiple hard surfaces are parallel to one another at short proportional distances.

For retro-fits, spaces can be partitioned and reconfigured to break up the space, paneling can be introduced to alter the reverberation surfaces and reduce echo. For new builds, careful attention should be given to spatial configurations to avoid these acoustical challenges, and ceiling heights, spatial proportions and parallel surfaces should be carefully assessed, particularly with regard to the functions and sensory level of the space. 

The objective of such spaces is to provide respite for all users, particularly autistic and neurodiverse users, from the over-stimulation found in their environment.

Empirical research has shown the positive effect of such spaces, particularly in learning environments. Anecdotal evidence has even supported that the mere knowledge of the presence of such spaces, and the knowledge that they are accessible to the user at any time, may be sufficient to reduce anxiety in the environment.

These spaces should provide a neutral sensory environment with minimal stimulation that can be customised by the user to provide the necessary sensory input. They can also help provide proprioceptive input and support the sense of physical orientation within space and provide vestibular input.

They should be easily accessible, adaptable and sufficient in
number to fulfil the sensory needs of the community while still respecting the varying needs of individuals for personal space. They should be acoustically controlled with design features such as sound-absorbent materials, physical partition-ing, sound masking technology and soft finishes.


THE AUTISM FRIENDLY UNIVERSITY DESIGN GUIDE. May 2021. Publisher: Dublin City University. 


ResearcH JournaL, 27.2 Kanakri, S. M., Shepley, M., Tassinary, L. G., Varni, J. W., & Fawaz, H. M. (2017). An observational study of classroom acoustical design and repetitive behaviors in children with autism. Environment and Behavior, 49(8), 847-873.

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