Recent CDC data notes that one in every 44 children in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many of these individuals have sensory issues. Some experience hypersensitivity to certain sounds, smells, or textures that leads to sensory avoidance. Others experience hyposensitivity, which inspires sensory-seeking behavior, such as stimming. In either case, sensory-friendly accommodations can provide immense benefits.
Autism Awareness Month is the perfect time to make sensory-friendly changes to your home—especially if your circle of family and friends includes individuals with ASD, sensory processing disorder (SPD), or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These changes can be as simple as integrating new lighting and paint colors, or you can tackle a bigger project, such as creating an open floor plan. Below, we offer sensory modifications for sight, touch, sound, and smell that you can incorporate into your home.
For those especially sensitive to visual stimuli, consider modifying the colors, lighting, decor, and organization of your home. Most sight modifications are meant to reduce a space’s visual noise and promote calm or focus.
High-contrast colors and busy patterns can easily overwhelm someone with autism or sensory processing issues. They can also be distracting. For spaces where you want to encourage relaxation or focus, warm neutrals or muted pastels are typically the best choices. However, some individuals may find a particular color soothing despite its brightness.
If you’re living with someone with sensory sensitivity, such as your child, keep their favorite colors and the room’s purpose in mind as you decide on a color palette. If they love pink, for instance, you might choose a soft pastel for their bedroom and a brighter hue for the playroom. Though bold colors and patterns might be counterproductive in a reading nook or homework space, they might just be what your sensory-seeking child needs in their play area.
Tressya Minndizz of Ark Interiors notes that harsh or bright lights can be overstimulating forindividuals with sensory processing issues. Given the documented co-occurrence of ASD and epilepsy, flashing or fluorescent lights can be outright dangerous. Some children are even bothered by reflective surfaces.
“Avoid harsh overhead lighting, as it can cause glare and shadows,” Minndizz suggests. Instead, use soft, indirect lighting. That could mean replacing a single overhead fixture with a series of recessed lights or placing a few lamps around the room and keeping the overhead light off. Regardless, you should use warm, yellow-hued light bulbs and dimmable lighting whenever possible. This allows the sensory-sensitive individual to adjust the room’s lighting to suit their needs and preferences.
Decluttering the home is one of the most cost-effective changes you can make to accommodate sensory-sensitive individuals. Like busy patterns and bright colors, clutter contributes to a room’s visual noise. Start by clearing out any unused items and simplifying the decor. Take a minimalist approach, especially with regard to purely decorative items.
Erin Klawiter of Nifty Nest emphasizes the importance of ensuring that each piece of furniture serves a purpose. “Editing out furniture that doesn’t have a function is also important,” she says. “Most find that while they feel like they need to hang onto grandma’s old hand-me-down furniture, they’re not using it in their day-to-day living, and having too much stuff stresses them out.”
Organization goes hand-in-hand with decluttering. Children with ASD, SPD, and ADHD all benefit from routine, organization, and structure. An organized room will be less visually overwhelming and more calming. Ensure each room has plenty of storage—think “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
If you are curating a multipurpose room, such as a bedroom that doubles as a play space or a rec room with a quiet corner for homework, be intentional with your design choices. You can use furniture and decor to establish visual boundaries and create clearly defined zones.
Sound and Smell Modifications
Most sound and smell modifications are designed to have a soothing effect. In walking us through her recommendations for creating a sensory-friendly home, Minndizz stresses the importance of providing “a quiet space for the individual to retreat to when they need a break from noise.” Here are a few specific recommendations:
If the individual is often overwhelmed by noise, do what you can to minimize the amount of sound that makes it into their room. Consider installing soundproof curtains or upgrading to double- or triple-pane windows. Although no windows will be completely soundproof, a replacement window company can recommend and install windows that significantly reduce outside noise levels. You can also find soundproofing door kits and acoustic door seals online.
For an extra layer of protection, buy noise-canceling headphones that the individual can use in their room and elsewhere in the house when necessary.
Blocking out all noise may not be possible or even preferable. In that case, another option is to purchase a white noise machine. The constant sound can be soothing and help block out more disruptive noises. Many white noise machines also play nature sounds. You can even find apps that allow you to play soothing sounds through a smart speaker, such as the Sleep Sounds skill available for Alexa devices, including the Echo Dot.
A third option for creating a calming atmosphere is background music. Soft, instrumental music is typically the best choice.
To get a better idea of what to look (or listen) for, check out the song “Weightless” by Marconi Union, a British ambient band. The band wrote “Weightless” with the help of scientists at MindLab International specifically to reduce anxiety—earning it the title “the world’s most relaxing song.” You can also find a variety of curated playlists on Spotify and other music streaming services filled with songs that encourage focus and relaxation.
Essential oil diffusers and other aromatherapy devices can further enhance a calm, quiet space. Adults can use scented candles and wax warmers, while aromatherapy diffusers are safer for children.
Scientific research has identified lavender as one of the most relaxing scents, which is why you’ll often find it in products meant to promote sleep or calm. However, it’s not the only option. You might also try citrus scents for their mood-boosting effect or frankincense for focus. Sandalwood, cedarwood, vetiver, peppermint, bergamot, and ylang-ylang are other popular scents with different advantages.
The difference between hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity is especially important when considering touch modifications. Remember, sensory-sensitive individuals can experience both. They might need to escape from touch-based stimuli sometimes and crave hands-on sensory experiences at other times. Here are a few things you can do to help:
Start by making sure the bedroom and any other sensory areas are safe and accessible. This includes providing clear pathways and plenty of open space. A crowded room makes it difficult to play safely when the individual is sensory-seeking and can cause unpleasant contact when they are sensory-avoidant. Further, consider installing bumpers or edge protectors on corners and sharp edges that could cause injury or discomfort.
Opt for soft surfaces and smooth curves whenever possible. For flooring, many individuals with ASD or SPD prefer plush carpets. Rugs, floor padding, pillows, and soft blankets can also provide cushioning. For hard furniture, such as a dresser or desk, choose a smooth matte finish. Avoid sharp edges, rough surfaces, and any textures the individual finds irritating.
Let their preferences guide your choices. For instance, they might love the smoothness of leather or the softness of faux fur but dislike the feeling of denim or sequins.
As you shop for sensory-sensitive furniture, focus on comfort and functionality. Ergonomic furniture with soft, smooth upholstery is a great investment. Start by ensuring you have a cozy bed and a comfortable chair, whether a beanbag, egg chair, or rocker. Be sure to involve the individual in the process and take their opinion into account, if possible.
Incorporate a few pieces of furniture or equipment that encourage tactile play, exercise, or other physical activities. This can be as simple as a yoga ball or sensory swing in the person’s bedroom, or you can go bigger with a full obstacle course in your basement. The goal is to provide a safe place to move, play, and create when they need sensory input.
Outdoor Space Modifications
Spending time outdoors can benefit all of us—and individuals with ASD, SPD, and ADHD are no exception. After modifying your home’s interior, consider one or more of the following changes to your outdoor space.
Minndizz recommends creating an outdoor sensory garden to give the sensory-sensitive individual “the opportunity to experience nature and provide a change of scenery.” A sensory garden does not have to be large, and you don’t need a yard to build one. Potted plants on a balcony or patio will also work, as will a carefully curated window box or collection of indoor plants.
The main thing to remember as you design your sensory garden is to appeal to as many senses as possible. Colorful flowers stimulate sight, while the nose will appreciate fragrant herbs such as rosemary, mint, and sage. A small water feature or wind chime can stimulate their sense of sound. For touch, look for smooth succulents, soft grass, velvety petals, and downy leaves. Stimulate the individual’s taste buds with fresh, homegrown produce.
If your yard is large enough, consider investing in outdoor play equipment that allows your child or another individual to safely climb, jump, swing, slide, crawl, and run outside. You could build an obstacle course, assemble a swing set, or set up a trampoline—just be sure to follow any safety recommendations, such as surrounding equipment with a layer of rubber mulch. For a smaller yard, look for smaller items, such as a water table or sandbox.
Comfortable and functional outdoor furniture can help encourage individuals to spend more time outdoors. An outdoor table with a padded chair could double as a homework spot or an arts-and-crafts area. A hammock or swing could be the perfect place to read or listen to music. Follow the same guidelines as you did for indoor furniture, focusing on soft fabrics and smooth curves.
As exciting as new play equipment and furniture may be, it’s important not to overcrowd your outdoor space. Give the individual the room they need to spread out, run, explore, and engage in free play. Activities such as jumping rope or playing backyard soccer will work better in a large, open space. Plus, the individual could find a crowded backyard as stressful or overstimulating as a cluttered indoor space.
Creating a Sensory-Friendly Room
If you live with an individual with ASD or another sensory-processing disorder, consider setting aside an entire room as a sensory-friendly space and incorporating the ideas above. Learn as much as possible about their specific sensitivities and what helps them cope, then create a custom space to meet their needs. Because many sensory-sensitive individuals experience both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity, you might need to separate the room into different zones to address both issues.
Dr. Karen Aronian of Aronian Education Design says she designs “restorative areas that reset and heal” and areas “that will work to rehabilitate sensory processing issues.” For the former, choose soothing colors and items that promote calm and relaxation, such as aromatherapy diffusers and weighted blankets. The individual’s bedroom might be the ideal setting for this zone. Alternatively, you could create a “calming corner” in a larger room using a tent or canopy.
The second space should incorporate age-appropriate art materials and play equipment. The goal is to stimulate the senses and encourage exploration, creativity, and movement. Be sure to include a variety of textures and sensory inputs. Dr. Aronian offered a few ideas for items to add into the space:
According to a recent article published by the American Journal of Psychiatry, anywhere from 5% to 16% of children in the United States experience what is known as sensory processing disorder (SPD). Although SPD often presents as a symptom of ASD or ADHD, some children seem to experience SPD as a standalone disorder. Though symptoms may improve with treatment, they do not disappear in adulthood.
For individuals with sensory issues, small changes in their environment and daily activities can make a big difference. Sensory overload can make it difficult for these individuals to feel comfortable, not only in school and other public settings but also at home. Remember, though, that each individual is unique. It may take some trial and error to determine which accommodations make sense for the individual in your life.
If you suspect your child might have sensory issues, we recommend working with a therapist or psychologist specializing in SPD, ASD, and ADHD. An experienced occupational therapist can help your child learn new ways to cope and offer recommendations for creating a sensory-friendly home where your child can learn, play, rest, and grow.