Designing & Decorating a Home with Autism in Mind

Many of us experience some sort of sensitivity to external stimuli. For example, you’ve probably squinted at a bright light or covered your ears because of a loud noise.

While most people aren’t too affected by this sensitivity, some individuals undergo heightened effects.

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often hypersensitive to sensory input. In other words, their sensory organs (including the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin) can be extremely sensitive to stimuli. A bright light might feel blinding, or the sound of a lawnmower may feel deafening.

To help ensure comfort and well-being, it’s important for families with autistic children to consider sensory needs. This involves carefully selecting furniture and decor that minimizes sensory overload.

Let’s take a closer look at how hypersensitivity affects autistic individuals, and how to design and decorate a home with autism in mind.

Understanding Autism

Before we review ways to make your home more accommodating, it’s important to understand what ASD is. Put simply, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects behavior, communication and cognitive function.

Common symptoms include the following:

  • Challenges with socialization: People with ASD often have difficulty communicating and perceiving social cues. They may struggle to maintain conversations, decipher body language and understand social norms.
  • Repetitive behaviors: It’s common for people with ASD to develop strict routines and repetitive behaviors. This may include engaging in repetitive movements (such as hand flapping or rocking) and having limited hobbies and interests. Changes in routine can be upsetting.
  • Hypersensitivity: As mentioned above, a major symptom of autism is sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Those with ASD may be hypersensitive to certain visuals, noises, textures, smells and tastes. This can develop into sensory overload, which may cause anxiety, stress and pain. ASD Signs

In the past, autism symptoms were often overlooked, which led to many children going undiagnosed. Now, as more information emerges, more and more families are noticing the signs of ASD early on.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in 36 children have been diagnosed with ASD. Although ASD can affect anyone, boys are more likely to have the disorder than girls.

Whether it’s caught early on or later in life, ASD cannot be cured. Rather, treatment involves a combination of improving and managing symptoms. For example, many autistic individuals undergo speech and language therapy or social skills training.

It’s also beneficial to set routines and modify environments to minimize hypersensitivity. A familiar, sensory-friendly environment can go a long way in making autistic people feel comfortable and relaxed.

Autism and Hypersensitivity

Of the children who have ASD, over 96% experience sensitivity to their surroundings.

A stimulus that may be slightly annoying to a neurotypical person can be painful to someone with ASD.

Here are some possible consequences of sensory overload:

  • Increased irritability or anxiety
  • Self-stimulating behaviors (such as hand flapping or rocking)
  • Physical discomfort (including headaches, nausea and dizziness)
  • Cognitive difficulties (such as problems with communication)
  • Avoidance and self-isolation
  • Meltdowns (including crying or screaming)

Due to these symptoms, people with ASD generally avoid potentially triggering environments, such as brightly lit stores or loud, crowded concerts. Unfortunately, not all triggers are avoidable — many of them can be found in the home.

How to Make Your Home Sensory Friendly

Anything from a brightly painted room to an uncomfortable sofa can negatively impact someone with ASD. The good news is, there are steps you can take to make your home sensory friendly.

Soft, Warm Lighting

natural lighting

Bright, fluorescent lighting might illuminate a space well, but those harsh white tones can be irritating to children with ASD.

Instead, opt for soft, warm lighting that fosters a calm environment.

For example, you could maximize natural lighting with large windows, or fill rooms with subtle table lamps, scones and accent lighting.

You may also want to get adjustable lighting, which lets you change brightness levels as needed.

Be sure to avoid lights that tend to flicker, as this can be distracting and overwhelming.

Muted Colors

Similar to bright lights, bold, intense wall colors can be overstimulating for autistic children.

Avoid these colors and go for one of the following tones instead:

  • Pastel shades (i.e. light blue, green or pink)
  • Earthy tones (i.e. brown, green or blue)
  • Neutral colors (i.e. beige, gray or cream)
earth tones
neutral tones

This doesn’t just apply to wall colors — it’s also helpful to incorporate muted colors in your furniture. For example, light gray curtain shades will be more calming than bright red shades, while a soft blue coach will be more inviting than a flashy orange sofa.

Tactile-Friendly Furniture

In addition to considering the color of your furniture, think about its texture.

soft sofa

Many people with ASD have tactile sensitivities, which means they’re sensitive to things they feel or touch. While these sensitivities vary from person to person, most autistic individuals are irritated by rough, coarse fabrics.

It’s best to choose softer, more comfortable materials, such as plush or velvet furniture.

To further minimize sensitivities, you can adorn the furniture with soft decorations. Cover the couch with a fuzzy blanket, throw some fluffy pillows onto the bed, add velvet upholstery to your armchair… the list goes on and on.

Soft Flooring

soft rug

It’s not just furniture that triggers tactile sensitivities — uncomfortable, hard flooring may also cause unpleasant sensations.

Not only that, but hard flooring is loud. Footsteps echo off of hardwood floors more loudly than they do on carpeting (especially if the person is wearing shoes).

These sounds can upset those who are sensitive to auditory stimulation. To muffle sounds and improve texture, opt for carpeting over floors. In areas that cannot be carpeted (such as the kitchens, main hallways and bathrooms), consider inserting non-slip rugs.

Noise-Blocking Arrangements

It’s one thing to minimize indoor noises — it’s another to block outdoor noises. While you cannot 100% prevent external noises from infiltrating your home, you can reduce it through purposeful furniture arrangements.

Placing large furniture — like armchairs, sofas and bookshelves — along outdoor-facing walls can help block sound waves.

Covering floors with soft furnishings, like rugs and carpets, can prevent echoing. Finally, noise-absorbing materials, including thick curtains and wall hangings, can absorb sounds.

Neutral Smells

When we consider sensory stimulation, we usually focus on visual, auditory and tactile stimuli. However, it’s important not to neglect one of the most sensitive organs: the nose.

Strong, harsh smells can be overwhelming and trigger sensory overload in autistic children.

Avoid products with very noticeable aromas, such as the following:

  • Scented candles
  • Scented air fresheners
  • Harsh cleaning products

Instead of a pumpkin spice candle or a lemon scented air freshener, go for products with neutral odors.

A good rule of thumb is to pick eco-friendly items, especially eco-friendly soaps, fabric softeners and other cleaners. Not only are they good for the environment, but they also tend to have neutral odors.

Organized Rooms

Hypersensitivity isn’t the only symptom to consider when designing a home for autistic children — you also want to be mindful of structure and routine.

As mentioned earlier, those with ASD often engage in repetitive, predictable behaviors. As a result, they enjoy predictable environments.

Organizing your home to eliminate clutter and random, unnecessary items can improve familiarity and reduce stress.

Safety Mechanisms

Last but not least, safety is a major part of decorating a home for autistic children. When an autistic child is overstimulated, they may run around or try to hide somewhere.

That’s why many parents create a distinct, sensory-friendly room specifically designed for their child to relax.

It’s also a good idea to incorporate safety features, such as the following:

  • Front and indoor gates
  • Anchored furniture
  • Non-slip mats
  • Locks on windows and furniture

By following these suggestions, you can help ensure your home is as safe and comfortable as possible for those with ASD.

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