Graduation Date


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science

Department or Program


Department or Program Chair

Elizabeth Truesdell PhD

First Reader

Jennifer Lucko, PhD

Second Reader

Suresh Appavoo EdD


This study examined the impact of a natural learning environment on the social-emotional development of students with Autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder. For this research, social-emotional development consisted of social behavior, communication, and participation. The elements of a traditional classroom are characterized by confinement, harsh lighting/acoustics, and other habitual triggers for sensory discomfort. A natural learning environment can provide students with natural stimuli, fresh air, natural acoustics, natural lighting, etc. Additionally, the natural learning environment fosters a connection with nature, which research shows is important for the self-discovery, self-advocacy, and self-efficacy of all humans. Considering the artificial nature of the traditional classroom, this study attempted to inquire into how natural settings can serve as the Least Restrictive Environment for students with sensory processing challenges. Previous research regarding natural learning environments has been predominantly carried out among neurotypical individuals.This study was conducted with a sample of seven students with sensory processing challenges in natural learning environments wherein they engaged in academic and social learning. Data was collected through surveys, observations, and field notes. Results identified that the natural learning environment was conducive to increased sensory regulation, a less restrictive learning environment, and a greater sense of self-advocacy and efficacy from a connection with and exposure to nature.