A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2017 | Number 2, Volume 31

Colorful classroom displays may impair learning for both neurotypical kids and those with ASD

Colorful classroom displays appear to distract students and impair their learning, a new study reports, and the effect is stronger for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than for neurotypical children. In the study, Mary Hanley and colleagues matched 17 children with ASD to 17 neurotypical children based on verbal ability. The children were between five and 13 years of age. 

Hanley and her team created videos of a teacher offering two lessons. The first lesson involved a storybook read-aloud session during which the children merely needed to listen, while the second involved a minilesson that required the children to listen and answer questions afterward. 

The researchers filmed the videos in front of a green screen so they could later create a colorful background display (the high visual display or HVD condition) for one pair of lessons and a plain background (the no video display or NVD condition) for another pair. They then used eye-tracking technology to determine the effects of each background on attention and learning. 

The researchers report, “Overall we found a clear effect of the presence of visual displays on attention for all children. Whether viewing stories or lessons, children spent more time looking at the background in HVD compared to NVD.” In addition, all children had lower learning scores in the HVD compared to the NVD condition when the researchers controlled for age. 

The researchers also found that while neurotypical children still prioritized their attention toward the teacher in the HVD condition, children with ASD responded differently. “Not only did they look at the visually distracting background more than typically developing children in both story and lesson videos,” the researchers say, “but they looked more at the background than the teacher in HVD.“ 

The researchers note, “Considering the tendency for children with autism spectrum disorders to prioritize non-social over social information for attention, in the context of a classroom scenario it may mean that non-social information such as classroom displays captures attention more readily than a teacher.” 

The researchers note that the children with ASD responded differently from the neurotypical children in all conditions except for the NVD mini-lessons. “When viewing stories without specific instruction (spontaneous viewing) children with ASD had atypically reduced attention to a teacher in NVD and HVD, and visual displays had a greater impact on their attention compared to typically developing children,” they report. “When instructed to pay attention to the lessons, children with ASD showed a more typical pattern of attention to the teacher and background, although this was not maintained in the presence of visual displays.” 

The researchers conclude that their study “has implications for the use of classroom visual displays for all children, but particularly for children with ASD.’


“Classroom displays—attraction or distraction? Evidence of impact on attention and learning from children with and without autism,” Mary Hanley, Mariam Khairat, Korey Taylor, Rachel Wilson, Rachel Cole-Fletcher, and Debbie Riby, Developmental Psychology, May 4, 2017 (epub prior to print publication). Address: Mary Hanley, Department of Psychology, Durham University, Science Site, South Road, Durham DH1 4JJ, UK, [email protected].