Springbrook Sensory Modulation Series: Full Spectrum Lights

sensory modulation full spectrum lighting

Full Spectrum Lighting Can Help Children with Autism Focus

We write about sensory integration and sensory modulation frequently on the Springbrook blog because these are fundamental components of any successful plan to modify the self-destructive, aggressive, or otherwise maladaptive behaviors often associated with autism.

Sensory integration refers to the ability to correctly assimilate all of the sensory information that you receive so that only the most important and relevant information reaches your conscious mind. For most of us, this process is largely unconscious—so subtle that we don’t even know that it’s happening. For a child with autism, however, this ability is not as innate and often has to be learned and practiced over time.

Children with autism tend to have overly excitable nervous systems that allow too much sensory information to make it to their brains, and less ability to filter this sensory information, which can cause them to become overwhelmed, distracted, and irritable. Sensory overload can also cause repetitive behaviors and trigger meltdowns. Think about it. How cheerful, well-adjusted, and social would you feel if you were acutely aware of the temperature of the room, the flickering and buzzing of the fluorescent overhead light, the ticking of the clock, and the thousand other sensory inputs going on around you every minute?

Fortunately, there are ways to help children on the autism spectrum cope with their sensory integration deficits. In addition to teaching children with autism how to filter out extraneous sensory information, we can support these efforts through external modifications such as weighted blankets, pressure vests, hydrotherapy, noise machines, and full spectrum lighting.

Full-Spectrum Lighting: A Simple Sensory Modulation

Sensory modulation is sometimes described as putting your child on a sensory diet because it involves restricting, promoting, and otherwise managing the sensory exposures of children with autism. Nearly all senses, and all sensory input, can be managed in a way that will improve the comfort level and the quality of life for children with autism. One simple swap that you can make to increase your child’s ability to focus is to exchange your incandescent and fluorescent bulbs for full spectrum light bulbs, which mimic natural light. If your child’s school is open to it, you can also suggest that they switch to full spectrum lighting in their classrooms.

Full Spectrum Lighting Decreases Light Sensitivity and Hyperactivity

The typical lighting provided in our schools and workplaces actually poses a problem for everyone. A full 16-hour day of indoor lighting provides less light than just one hour of being outdoors. Since most of us conduct the majority of our daily activities inside, we become perpetually light-deprived, which limits absorption of vitamin D, slows down metabolism, and disrupts circadian rhythms. In turn, this chronic light deprivation can cause us to become moody, easily distractible, and sleep-deprived.

Lighting is an even bigger concern for children with autism. In addition to the problems that insufficient indoor lighting causes for everyone, the fluorescent lights that are usually used in schools send out a pulse, or vibration, that is particularly uncomfortable and distracting for many children with autism and related disorders. Of course, parents of children on the autism spectrum know how true this can be from experience. Many children with autism struggle to go on shopping trips to department stores or grocery stores as the fluorescent lighting can cause meltdowns.

Unlike standard fluorescent bulbs, which is an incomplete lighting source, providing illumination in only a few of the possible visible spectra, full spectrum fluorescent lighting illuminates a room in all visible wavelengths. Numerous studies have shown that children with autism, as well as children with other light sensitivities and hyperactivity disorders, feel calmer and are better able to focus under full spectrum lights, which is one reason that the Springbrook Autism Program uses full spectrum lighting in all of our classrooms, in our Sunrise Room, and in our Sensory Integration Room.

The Research

Scientists, doctors, and other researchers have been studying the effects of lighting since the 1970’s, beginning with pioneering light researcher John Ott.

Ott began his research by studying how different colored lights affect plant growth, but he soon turned his attention to lighting and its effects on people, particularly young people. In 1973, he conducted a ground-breaking experiment comparing the school performance of first-graders in windowless classrooms—one group under standard cool white fluorescents and one group under full spectrum light fixtures which he developed for the study (OTT lights remain the industry standard and the closest replication of the sun’s natural wavelengths to this day).