Imagine if every time you walked across a carpet, you felt like 1,000 ants were tickling your toes, or whenever you entered a room with white lights, you felt like the high beams of a car were blinding you. If this is your reality, you are most likely in a constant state of despair and naturally will respond.
These examples may seem exaggerated to some, but for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), these experiences are very real. Overstimulation by otherwise safe and nontoxic stimuli is a major trigger for the behaviors associated with autism and is commonly known as sensory sensitivity.
Because no two autism diagnoses are the same and each person has different sensitivities and symptoms, designing an autism-friendly home can be challenging. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” reports Dr. Kristi Gaines, a professor at Texas Tech University and the co-author of “Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders.” A design that is helpful to one person may be harmful to another, so it is important to view each case as unique.
There are some interior design considerations that any family can make to create a safe, comfortable space for their loved one with autism. Designing spaces to limit sensory overload does not always require a complete renovation. A few minor changes — like increasing the amount of natural light and reducing noise levels in the home — can make a big difference.
Why is Autism-Friendly Design Important?
Children and adults with autism experience the world differently than people who are neurotypical. Those with autism may be hypersensitive (over-responsive) or hypo-sensitive (under-responsive) to stimuli in their daily environment and react to things that you may not always — or ever — notice.
Since much of autism therapy focuses on behavior management, therapists, caregivers and families alike constantly look for ways to make the home environment more comfortable for their loved one with autism. Ultimately, these design solutions should provide a safe space that promotes growth, development and a better quality of life.
A growing body of research also suggests that minor changes or adjustments to sensory inputs in the home can reinforce positive behaviors and create a safe oasis for people with autism. A person’s physical environment can so profoundly impact their functional and social performance that autism-friendly modifications have become integral to autism educational and treatment centers.
Why not do the same for your home?
First Steps: Understand Sensory Stimulation Needs
Before you start replacing the lights and painting the walls, it’s important to understand the needs of your child or loved one by having a professional assessment done.
Each person with autism has different needs, and many people have at least one or more other disabilities, impairments or diagnoses in addition to autism. To clarify:
- Approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. has received an ASD diagnosis (as of 2018)
- More than 50% of children with autism also have at least one, if not multiple, chronic sleep problems
- Between 11% and 40% of people with autism also have an anxiety diagnosis
- An estimated 30% to 61% of children with autism are co-diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Once you know what kind of sensory stimulation is needed, you can start making changes in your home. If you do not decide to redesign your home completely, you can consider other design solutions including:
- Home layout
- Paint and finishes
- Sensory rooms
Much of the research on interior design for children with autism has focused on learners in an educational setting, but you can easily apply this information to your home environment. Predictability is the most important factor to consider when thinking about home design.
A well-designed floor plan makes it easier for children and adults with autism to navigate their homes. When designing a home for people with autism, one of the main focuses in the report Advancing Full Spectrum Housing is clearly separating rooms and spaces.
There should be clear transitions into each room, and all rooms should be designed according to their function and purpose. “High predictability and routines are essential for children with autism. The higher the predictability, the lower the resistance and behavioral rigidity,” says Victoria Isaac-Jordan, Ed.S, NCSP.
When a room’s layout is functionally predictable, individuals with autism can better focus on emotional and behavioral regulation.
Because paying attention can be challenging for some people with ASD, it can be helpful to place visual cues throughout the home. Written signs or pictures can help children and adults understand the function of a room and where the bathroom, bedrooms, kitchen and sensory rooms are. You can also use color coding, but be sure to use pastels instead of bright colors.
To improve the spatial layout of your home and enable independent living, make the most of your space by doing the following:
- Increase visibility in rooms as much as possible
- Use clean lines and minimalist-designed furniture to avoid clutter and excessive furnishings
- Use a specific color, flooring, type of material or rugs to indicate a change in space
- Provide ample storage in both shared and individual spaces
- Always provide a quiet place for personal or alone time
- Provide enough space between furniture to move around easily
- Ensure a balance between shared space for social interaction and personal space
Paint and Finishes
From olfactory to auditory, each person with autism has unique sensory processing. Visual stimuli, especially colors, can have an impact. For example, a neutral color palette is a typical recommendation for people with ASD, but some children may seek sensation and prefer bright colors and glitter. It really depends on the individual, so always consider this before making a design decision.
When choosing colors for your walls and décor, stick to soft, pastel and neutral paint colors — such as tan, beige, pink, blue and green — instead of bright shades. The same goes for flashy, distracting patterns and cluttered décor. If processing sensory input is challenging for someone, it can be hard to concentrate if the walls are full of colorful patterns.
Comfort should always be the goal when creating a calm atmosphere for children and adults with autism. When choosing materials for your design, stick to options that create a warm environment — such as wood grains, green tones and natural elements — rather than busier materials that create an institutional or noisy atmosphere.
Additional considerations for paint and finishes include the following:
- Minimize clutter to avoid sensory overload
- Choose materials that contain fewer harmful chemicals, like no or low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) paints
- Rely on tone — how dark or light something appears — rather than bright colors to indicate the location of light switches, outlets and other features
- Use fragrance-free paints and materials
Bright light is a common sensory sensitivity in children and adults with autism, and fortunately, lighting is one of the easiest updates you can make. When lighting your home, install a range of options that include natural light, non-flickering bulbs and warmer hues.
Natural light is the preferred option. If you have large windows, you just need to install blinds that you can easily control. If you do not have easy access to natural light, you can create your own calming light source by installing recessed and indirect lighting such as lamps, backlit mirrors or under-cabinet lighting.
Because it’s often too bright and stimulating, do not use fluorescent lighting. Instead, opt for warmer light, energy-efficient LEDs and fixtures that you can dim. If you are tech-savvy, you can set up a timer to slowly dim the lights, similar to how natural light changes throughout the day.
In addition to the lighting suggestions above, you should also consider the following:
- Avoid flickering light as it can be unsettling
- Make sure all your lights are hum-free
- Avoid surfaces that might reflect light, such as metal
- Reduce glare by using indirect lighting
- Always install lights in closets
- Hallways, stairways and landings should have adequate lighting
- Bathrooms should have bright lighting that does not cast shadows
Noise is a common sensory sensation in any home that may require more intensive renovation to fully address. For example, if you live near an airport, railroad track or busy road, there’s little you can do to limit the noise. However, there are ways you can remodel your home to reduce ambient noise, which is the everyday sound generated by our homes and appliances.
Ambient noise may not be something you notice, but it can be incredibly overstimulating to a person with autism. It may be that your HVAC system makes noise as it pushes air into your home, your refrigerator occasionally hums every or the water softener hisses as it improves your water. To combat ambient noise, you can invest in quiet home systems and appliances that limit excessive sounds.
If you can soundproof your walls, this update alone will decrease noise. However, some homes have such thin walls that there is little you can do to prevent noise from spreading from room to room.
There are several other ways to improve both the acoustics and the comfort of your loved ones, including:
- Cover windows with heavy curtains to reduce outside noise
- Place large pieces of furniture against the wall to block out ambient noise
- Muffle sounds with rugs and carpets
- Insulate your walls with acoustic panels or acoustic insulation
- Install ductless HVAC systems
- Isolate HVAC systems with acoustic duct panels
- Install quiet fans
- Mount washers, dryers and dishwashers on flat surfaces to reduce bouncing
- Use refrigerators, dishwashers and stoves designed to be quiet
- Turn off the alarm that indicates the refrigerator has been open too long
A sensory room, also known as a multisensory environment or multisensory room, is a special area that engages all five senses and helps people with autism relax and relieve stress. Because some people with autism are sensory seekers rather than easily overstimulated, you should tailor each sensory room should to the specific needs of the person.
Since this room is designed to be a place where people with autism can spend time regulating their senses, it should not be too sensory or too stimulating. In fact, this space does not have to be elaborate at all, and sometimes less is more. As long as the sensory room is in its own place and away from stimulating environments, this safe space can be an oasis for your child or loved one with autism.
The guidelines below can help you create the perfect sensory room in your home.
- Use neutral and white tones to create a calming environment
- Add textures to the walls, floor or furniture to stimulate the senses
- Make sure the room is enclosed to make it feel safer and more secure
- Limit noise in the room, but provide headphones with preferred sounds and music if desired
- Provide comfortable furniture with designated seating
- Add favorite toys, activities and fidget spinners
- Weighted blankets and other compression jackets may be useful
- Set up swings, mats, trampolines and playground equipment for sensory-impaired children
An autism-friendly design should be a comfortable and calming environment that promotes independent living, but it should also be safe. As you create an oasis for your child or loved one with autism, always keep the following in mind:
- Create clear pathways without furniture obstructions
- Make sure floors are level and smooth
- Use non-toxic paints, cleaners and other materials
- Use hypoallergenic products
- Avoid the use of pesticides and insecticides
- Ensure that everyday items are easily accessible
- Use only non-slip rugs in the kitchen, bathroom and laundry room
- If possible, install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that talk instead of beeping to minimize stress in a dangerous situation