By: Erin Parkes, PhD
Increasing numbers of home studio music teachers are looking for ways to create an accessible space for neurodiverse students. This is fantastic, as having more options for music learning in the community is a huge piece of the accessibility puzzle. But there is a lot of concern amongst teachers that this may be difficult to achieve in a home studio that often has to serve multiple purposes, or where the teaching space may spill over into other parts of the home that are more traditional living spaces. In this article, we’ll address both of these issues: how to set up your studio itself to be sensory-friendly, and how to ensure any shared areas in your home are safe and accessible.
First, let’s address why sensory-friendly studios are needed. Many neurodiverse students, including those with autism and ADHD, may process their sensory environment differently from neurotypical students. This can mean that they are hyper- or hypo-sensitive to sensory stimuli, or that they may have difficulty filtering information. This can lead to overwhelm, sensory-seeking behaviours, or becoming distracted by elements of the environment. Not only are these feelings uncomfortable for students, they can create challenges with the learning process or lead to maladaptive behaviours in the lesson. Balancing these diverse sensory needs can be tricky, but it is possible!
Let’s talk about the studio space itself. It is not ideal to have a space that is open to the rest of the home for a couple of reasons: first, the larger space may present too many sensory stimuli and it may become difficult (or even impossible) for your student to maintain focus or may lead to overwhelm; and second, there may be acoustics in an open space that make it difficult for your student to process auditory information. For both of these reasons, it’s best to have the studio in an enclosed space. If this is not possible, do your best to create the visual illusion of an enclosed space by using room dividers or creative furniture placement. Once you have your studio space well-defined, here are a few tips to make it sensory-friendly:
- Reduce visual clutter by minimizing things on walls or shelves.
- Use baskets or bins to organize materials—each basket or bin is only one item but may hold 20 items. This is much less visual information for your student to process.
- Create visual interest in an easy-to-process way by having bright, warm colours and a few pieces of art, but without busy patterns.
- Keep any potentially distracting items hidden in bins or drawers.
- Be aware of auditory distractions. If possible, close windows and doors to reduce noise.
- Have window coverings both for daytime to reduce any distractions outside, and for night to avoid reflections that can be distracting.
- Think about the lighting in the room. When possible, have multiple sources of light so that you can adjust for the needs of the student.
- Do a “distraction audit” before you welcome neurodiverse students into your studio. Check for things like dangly blind cords, mirrors, or knick knacks that may cause the student to become distracted.
- Have sensory toys and aids on hand, like noise blocking headphones, stress balls, and fidgets.
Unless your home studio is set up in a way that allows the student to enter the studio directly, it is likely that the student will access some shared space in your home. Here are a few tips to ensure that your home is welcoming to neurodiverse students:
- Avoid strong scents, like air fresheners or cooking smells.
- Hide any toys or electronics that may be distracting for your student and make the transition to the lesson challenging.
- Try to create a quiet and comfortable space for the student to wait before the lesson.
- If you have pets, ensure that the student is comfortable with them or keep them in a separate area of the home during the lesson.
- Clearly define the areas of the home that are accessible to the student (waiting area, washroom, studio) and ensure that those areas are neat and tidy.
Creating a sensory-friendly home studio is an important part of welcoming neurodiverse students into your teaching practice (and you may find it works well for your neurotypical students as well!). Taking these steps will go a long way towards developing an environment that supports learning and music making.