Creating a Sensory Friendly Home Environment for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Modified: February 26, 2016 4:15pm

National Autism Network

Individuals with autism often experience sensory difficulties that can make everyday interaction painstaking. Noises that typically go without notice to the general public can be a huge challenge for an individual with autism, and prevent them from being able to focus on a given task or possibly even lead to a meltdown.  

Although not considered core features of autism, sensory issues, which can impact all 5 senses, have been found to affect nearly 90 percent of children on the spectrum in some way or another. While it is impossible to control others out in public, there are steps you can take as parents to make your home more sensory-friendly for your child. A child's sensory needs could involve the reduction of stimuli or an increase of stimulation depending on the situation.2 This article will discuss features you can add in your home to make it more comfortable for your child experiencing sensory sensitivities.  

Children with autism have sensory needs that may be viewed as odd to the layman individual unfamiliar with the disorder. Actions like lining objects in a row or stimming can seem peculiar, but may offer therapeutic value for that individual. Below are some examples of household features that can assist these sensory needs as well as items that can transform your home into a living space that is more sensory friendly:  

Design: When planning a sensory-friendly environment it is important to envision how the design or the layout of the area will affect the child's abilities. You are going to want to design a room to be sensory-friendly by constructing it so that it cuts down on outside stimuli, is organized (and can be easily reorganized).  Plan as much out in the design phase as possible including furniture arrangement, color schemes, child's needs, how much sunlight is getting in, the type of theme you desire, if any, outlet placement, what your budget is, the types of sensory devices/activities you would like to include, etc.   This is most important in rooms in where your child spends the majority of their time, such as their room, the living room, kitchen, and bathroom.   

Color: Colors have the power to incite specific emotions and feelings inside of us. For example, red, which triggers stimulation, appetite, and hunger, and yellow, which triggers feelings of happiness and friendliness, are often used by fast food companies to get you to subconsciously desire their food. 

When it comes to colors for children on the autism spectrum, less is more, as some research has found that children with autism see color more intensely than their neurotypical peers.  

One of the cornerstones of making a room sensory-friendly is to cut down on overstimulation. To stay true to this concept, colors should be low-toned, or muted, patterns should be minimal, and colors should be chosen wisely. For example, blue has been found to be the most calming, while reds were found to be the most arousing in children with autism. No matter how you plan your room's colors, you can always add sensory stimuli to them according to your child's needs.  

Lighting: This is where you get to really be creative, especially for your child's room. A calming environment will naturally be void of intense lighting from fluorescent bulbs, but in their place a number of different lighting techniques can be used. Bright or fluorescent lights can be disorienting for those on the spectrum, causing them to seek refuge or isolate themselves in a more controlled environment.  Every room in your house should have a dimmer switch so that the lighting can be adjusted according to your child's needs. For your child's room, you can introduce lighting in a variety of ways. Black lights, Christmas lights, bubble tubes, projectors, LED lights, fiber optics, night lights etc. are all viable ways to provide lighting in your child's room.  Putting a piece of fabric safely around a lighting fixture can also reduce light. While there is a consensus within the autism community that fluorescent lighting should be avoided, the jury is still out on natural light. Some argue that natural light aids cognitive abilities and overall health. However, there are others who believe that natural lighting is detrimental to an individual with autism because distractions like glare, shifting sunlight patterns, and outside visual stimuli are too great. However, for a home setting natural light is encouraged, and there is nothing stopping you from drawing a curtain if it becomes too big of a distraction. Blackout curtains can be helpful, especially for children who often experience sleep issues.  

Organization/Structure: Let's face it, kids will be kids, and that means they will be messy. However, keeping rooms structured and organized is important for maintaining routine. Play things do not only need to be organized in a logical manner, but able to be easily accessed by your child whenever he/she pleases. Of the utmost importance is safety. Be sure to arrange furniture and your electronic devices so that there aren't any exposed wiring or outlet holes. Your structure and organization doesn't need to end in your child's room or even have to involve their possessions.  Other organization tips include a toy bin on wheels, a sensory "sweet spot" full of pillows and other sensory-friendly items, simple routines, and anything that will make your child feel more comfortable.  

Furniture: The type of furniture you have in your house can go a long way to providing structure and organization, as well as ensuring your child's safety. Children tend to be rough on furniture, especially their own, so make sure to purchase durable items. In the dining room, cushioned, heavy chairs with long backs provide the most support and security. For children who have poor motor skills, a low-rise table may be suitable to prevent from tipping or falling out of chairs.  

In their room, arrange furniture so your child can easily transition from activity to activity without breaking routine. Also, arrange the furniture in such a way that they are away from shelves or other places where the child may climb. It is also important to keep in mind that doorknobs and hooks can be viewed as invitations for climbing in the eyes of a child who views the entire world as their personal play palace. For children who have the motor skills and the desire, there are sensory room designs that include rock climbing walls.  Labels on the furniture can be helpful at not only assisting a child with identifying an object, but also its purpose. For example, if you label a bed as "for sleeping", then your child will be less likely to use it as a trampoline. Your furniture can take on the same principles of other sensory items, and that is to either calm or stimulate the senses depending on the situation.  

Sensory Items: While it may seem impractical to introduce some of the items you might see at an Occupational Therapy session, such as a ball pit (although, one can be easily created using an empty child's pool and plastic balls) , many of the therapeutic tools utilized during OT can be affordable and easily applied in the home. Big pillows, rope ladders, tactile paths/discs, OT therapy tunnels, swings, and many other variations on these themes are essential for enhancing and calming your child's sensory needs. Your child's mattress is another item that warrants careful consideration as sleeping problems are common for children with autism, not to mention potential bed wetting scenarios. Like the rest of the furniture your child uses, your bed frame should be heavy and durable. Weighted blankets, although not entirely without controversy, have been used by some to help children with autism conquer sleep issues or for the calming effect.   As for the mattress itself, you want it to be firm, soft, and durable, which is why memory foam or latex mattresses work best, but take your child to the store for a test drive, if possible. For themed rooms, your child's bed frame can make bedtime feel like more of an adventure than a chore. Some families have installed curtain rods in the ceiling above the bed so the child can block out excess light and have more privacy.  

Shelves: This may seem like a small feature to be given its own section, but shelf placement and use can help keep your child engaged. First of all, arrange shelves horizontally as to suppress any notion of climbing. Secondly, children with autism tend have a proclivity for lining things up or stacking items (the latter of which can come in handy when deciding upon organizational tactics). According to The Sensory Hippo, which provides idea for sensory living, "creating a play space in your home that appeals to their desire to line things up can be calming for them."  

These long shelves should be placed just below eye level and be installed in multiple rooms in the house.  These shelves can be therapeutic as a calming strategy, but can also work as a new coping strategy. For example, if a child with autism isolates themselves when strangers come over, then you can give them a new toy or special item they find comforting for them to line up and play with in the living room or family room. The new coping strategy can work to help get them through the visit as opposed to running into their room. 

Bathroom: The bathroom is likely anything but a haven for your child on the autism spectrum. The bathroom can cause a number of sensory sensitivities such as the ringing of echoes on tile surfaces, cold floors, hard/cold toilet seats, loud toilets, running water, and bright lights reflected on mirrors can all be disorienting for individuals on the spectrum. 

The first thing you should consider when trying to make your bathroom more sensory-friendly is safety. Some safety issues to install would be a bath rail and a rail next to the toilet, a toilet lock, non-slip surfaces on tiles and in the tub, non-slip stools, etc.  In terms of comfort, non-slip rugs and mats next to the tub and sink, cushioned potty cover, shelves and hooks for towels to decrease the echoes in the room, night lights over bright lights (natural lighting during the day if possible), and a towel warmer to cut down on the anxiety shivering can cause children. Other features you may want to consider is a removable, handheld shower head, a shower head with LED lights, portable bath jets that can reduce pain and induce relaxation through massage, a waterproof pillow, bath toys (naturally), music in the bathroom, and be sure to utilize non-toxic cleaners. Glass mirrors frequently used by your child should be replaced with a reflective acrylic surface to avoid breaking. 


Conclusion  

There are infinite possibilities out there when it comes to constructing a more sensory-friendly environment in your home that cover a wide range of expenses. You do not have to break the bank to create an effective sensory-friendly environment and some sensory items you can even create myself. Include your child in the planning, decision making, and creation process as much as possible. Tailor their sensory-friendly environments to their favorite subjects because after all they will be spending a lot of time there. Have fun with the process and remember it doesn't have to be perfect.  

We would love to hear about some sensory activities or objects you have installed in your home in the comment section below. We have also included some resources relating to sensory-friendly environments below. 

Features you can add in your home to make it more comfortable for your child experiencing sensory sensitivities