Most autistics struggle with sensory processing issues on a daily basis, and they need a safe place to provide respite from stressful and overwhelming environments. A sensory-friendly home is an environment optimized to meet the sensory needs of an autistic child and is crucial to decreasing stress and increasing functionality and overall happiness.
What is Sensory Processing?
Sensory processing or sensory integration refers to how the brain receives and organizes different sensory information and sends signals back to the body about how to respond. Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have difficulty organizing different sensory input and behaving in functional ways.
Autistics can experience a range of sensory integration difficulties, including under-stimulation and over-stimulation. One recent theory suggests that the primary challenge autistic individuals face is a “hypersensitivity to experience” rather than any social deficiencies. If this is true, managing sensory input can be an important factor in helping your autistic child function in a variety of different environments, and establishing a sensory-friendly home is a foundational step. Parents of autistic children are usually aware of these sensory sensitivities early on in their children’s lives and go to great lengths to avoid uncomfortable sensory experiences and offer healthy, safe, and gradual exposure to different sensory stimuli.
Tips for Creating a Sensory-Friendly Home
Below are several tips for optimizing your home environment to meet the specific sensory needs of your autistic child. These suggestions for creating a sensory-friendly home cover a variety of different sensory sensitivities, so not all of them will be necessary for everyone, but hopefully you can find some ideas that will help your child thrive in your home environment.
A sensory-friendly home accommodates for certain types of lighting or visuals that can distract children and interfere with homework, mealtimes, and sleep patterns. Below are some tips for coping with your child’s visual sensitivities:
- Eliminate any lights that flicker.
- Watch for distracting glares light fixtures may cast on windows and televisions. Consider uplighting or diffused lighting to reduce glares.
- Avoid using fluorescence lighting or any lighting that emits a noise.
- Allow your child to wear sunglasses outside or carry them with her whenever she goes out in public.
- Keep your home decor and walls neutral colors (or at least in your child’s bedroom and the main family gathering spaces).
- Limit the amount of objects or materials hanging on walls.
- Use visual schedules and other decor that remain in predictable, consistent places.
Some autistic children may fail to notice intense odors (hyposensitive) while others can have adverse reactions to slight ones (hypersensitive). Unfortunately, these sensory issues can be extremely disabling if unaddressed in a particular environment. Here are some suggestions for accommodating for olfactory dysfunction:
- Use odor-free cleaning products.
- Avoid wearing perfume or colognes.
- Avoid using strong scented candles or air fresheners.
- Play smelling games and practice smelling different objects around the house to facilitate controlled exposure for hypersensitivity and awaken the senses for the hyposensitive child.
Eating issues are a complex topic and can be a result of multiple factors, including gastrointestinal or other medical conditions, problems responding appropriately to bland or extreme tastes, or extreme texture aversion. There are a variety of ways to improve the diet of someone on the spectrum; below is a starting list for understanding different ways to manipulate mealtime in sensory-friendly ways:
- Read the book Food Chaining. It is an excellent primer to eating difficulties and offers a safe approach for exposing your child to new foods by slowly building on her preferences.
- Consider mixing textures of foods your child prefers and doesn’t prefer to slowly expose her to new choices.
- If your child prefers spicier foods, consider adding hot sauce to other blander foods she doesn’t like.
- Play with your food. Forget about etiquette and play games at the dinner table. Allow your child to touch, lick, and kiss the food and enjoy those successes.
- Don’t force your child to eat something or threaten to keep her at the dinner table. Make eating a fun, social, safe experience so your child will want to keep coming back.
When considering the tactile needs of someone on the spectrum, understand they will vary considerably depending on whether the child needs to seek input or avoid it. The list below includes tips for establishing a safe environment for both types of sensory conditions:
- Respect their personal space. Consider posting rules for touching or interacting with your child, especially if you have frequent visitors in your home and this is a stressor for him.
- Remove all tags from clothing.
- Only use soft clothing or textures your child prefers. Try to find seamless or loose-fitting clothing such as soft cotton or jersey material.
- Use food chaining methods to introduce new foods and textures in safe ways.
- Consider using weighted blankets to comfort or relax your child.
- Compression garments may help relax your child or organize body movements.
- Hang a swing in your home for your child to use as a form of relaxation and vestibular input.
- Make a variety of sensory toys and activities accessible in your home. Some ideas include stress balls, chew toys, a sand box, boxes of different types of fabric, vibrating toys, playground equipment, and exercise balls.
A sensory-friendly home also addresses noise and vibration that can overwhelm some autistic people. Often it is the fear of the unexpected that is so terrifying. It can be the loudness of the vacuum cleaner, a siren, or car horn; even background noises like the sound of the ocean, a box fan, or furnace can be irritating or painful. Some problem noises will be easy to identify because of the intensity of your child’s adverse response. However, other noise issues might be harder to target. Try to pay close attention to how your child acts in a variety of activities and settings in your home. Some noises may be painful and make it impossible to function, while other, less disabling sounds may still cause distractions or interfere with concentration on a particular task.
Families with autistics who are sensitive to sound can benefit from a variety of different techniques for neutralizing the pain of the sounds typically encountered in your daily routine:
- Gradually expose your child to loud noises, either in frequency or intensity in order to allow him to grow accustomed to it in a safe environment, with an opportunity to retreat or test out different coping mechanisms with your guidance.
- Consider using carpets in rooms to help reduce noise intensity.
- Try to warn your child before using a machine that makes loud noises, such as a vacuum cleaner or blender.
- Keep television and radio noise at a low level.
- Offer your child headphones to use when the noise level is overwhelming.
- Give your child earplugs to take with him when he is out in public to cope with any unexpected auditory stressors.
There are a number of resources to help your child cope with sensory processing disorder, ranging from intense occupational therapy to simple environmental changes and exercises like those listed above that can be implemented by any parent or caregiver. Establishing a sensory-friendly home is important for your child’s emotional development and success. Ensuring that environment exists when your child leaves your home is another issue to tackle. Next week’s post will address common sensory needs of the autistic child in the classroom and how parents can advocate for their child’s educational needs.
Additional Resources for Creating a Sensory-Friendly Home
http://www.judyendow.com/advocacy/autism-and-visual-detail/–Here Judy Endow explains how she has learned to enjoy the beauty of her unique sensory system.
The Asperkid’s Launch Pad by Jennifer Cook O’Toole