Sensory-Friendly Home Modifications for Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

When you have a child or family member on the autism spectrum, creating a safe and functional home environment is an important task. Autism can have a huge impact on an individual’s development, lifestyle, and social connections. People on the spectrum can be particularly sensitive to lights, sounds, and other stimuli. Many crave order and routines to make sense of the world. Safety can be a concern for those who wander, are drawn to water, or are prone to head banging or self injury.

According to the Autism Society, about 1 percent of the world’s population has autism spectrum disorder, and the condition affects about 1 in every 59 children born in the United States. This means that in America, 3.5 million people are on the autism spectrum. This number is growing as diagnostic criteria are becoming better understood.

Children and adults with autism often struggle with sensory integration, the neurobiological process of  interpreting and managing the sensory input they receive. It can be hard for them to make sense of sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory information.There are three main sensory systems that may be affected when an individual has autism. Understanding these three sensory systems is key to understanding individuals with autism and how they interact with their home environments:

For some individuals on the autism spectrum, sensory input is completely overwhelming. They have a very difficult time dealing with noisy or chaotic environments. For others, sensory input is hardly felt, leading them to crave additional input. In the autism community, these two extremes have different names. “Sensory seeking” refers to those people with autism who crave additional sensory input. “Sensory sensitivity” or “sensory avoiding” refers to those people with autism who are prone to sensory overload, which causes confusion, anxiety, and withdrawal.

In either case, for people with autism or sensory processing disorder, living in a world designed for neurotypical people can be challenging. Thankfully, families who have autistic family members can make their homes more accommodating. Home modifications, including simple changes and more complex ones, are an excellent way to create a comfortable retreat for people with autism.

Here is a closer look at some of the home modifications that can help someone who is living with autism feel more comfortable and at peace in the home environment. While many of these are geared toward parents with a child who has autism, they often apply to adults as well, as the challenges of neurodiversity do not have age limits.
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Consider Visual Stimuli

When an individual with autism has a dysfunctional sensory system, the visual input they receive can be difficult to process. Lighting and colors can easily overwhelm an individual with autism. In your home, you can take measures to reduce visual stimuli in order to lessen this effect, helping your loved one feel more comfortable at home. Here are some tips to help you do this.

Look at the Lighting

  • Choose lighting that is as close to natural light as possible. Lighting comes in different color temperatures, and highly sensitive individuals may find artificial colors uncomfortable. This means you want to invest in bulbs with a color rendering index (CRI) as close to 100 as possible.
  • Avoid lights that flicker. Many types of artificial lighting flicker slightly. This may not be noticeable to a neurotypical person, but an autistic person may find the flickering unbearable. Fluorescent lighting, including CFL lighting, often has trouble with flickering. LED lighting can remove this problem.
  • Consider the sound the lighting makes. Lighting can also make a very low sound, which most people do not hear. Again, the buzz of a light can be painful to someone with autism. Again, fluorescent lighting is a main culprit here.
  • Install dimmable lights to make it easier to control the level of light in the home. This will give you a measure of control when the level of light is too intense for your autistic loved one, but will allow you to brighten up the space on days when light sensitivity does not seem to be too high.
  • Be aware of the struggle glare can cause. Glare from outdoor sunlight, glare on computer screens, and even glare off of reflective, hard surfaces, like hardwood flooring, can also be problematic, so look for ways to reduce this. Window tinting or anti-glare coatings might help.

Use Calming Colors

Keep the Home Organized

  • Reduce clutter in your home. The chaos created by clutter makes it difficult to function with sensory sensitivities. Go through each room of your house on a regular basis and purge excess items that are no longer needed. This will not only help your loved one with autism, it can relieve stress for other family members as well.
  • Organize your home to make routines easier. Children and adults with autism generally thrive when they have routines in place. To make life easier for them, keep your home organized. Establish distinct places where objects belong and put them back immediately after use.
  • Install shelves or built-in bookcases to make storage easier. Having a place for everything is a key to reducing visual stimuli in the form of clutter. Bookcases with organized storage containers are a helpful way to do this. Built-in bookcases can be seamlessly integrated into the home’s design, which will better reduce clutter and improve organization.
  • Use a bin system to make organization and tidy living automatic. Separate different types of supplies and toys, take photos of them and paste or tape those photos onto a bin, so items are easily stored and can be found quickly when desired.

Consider Open Concept Home Design

  • Remove barriers that can break up the line of sight when possible. Open concept floor plans are easier for people with sensory processing concerns. Removing non-load-bearing walls and opening up the home’s floor plan can help make the home more comfortable. This also allows the individual with autism to preview a space before entering it, which can improve the individual’s comfort in the home.
  • Avoid cluttering the open design with too much furniture. Again, clutter is distressing to people with autism, so remove as much as possible when considering the design of your floor plan. Arrange furniture so that your autistic child can easily transition from one activity to the next without a visual or physical barrier.
  • Create an in-home walking loop. Once you have an open design, map out a walking loop inside the home that the individual can use for pacing behaviors. Pacing can reduce stress significantly, and an open concept design makes this type of behavior possible.

For more information about visual stimuli in your home and how it affects an autistic loved one, visit:

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Pay Attention to the Sounds in Your Home

Auditory stimuli can be just as distressing as visual stimuli to people with autism. Your home should be a tranquil retreat. Often, children and adults with autism will have heightened senses of hearing, and they may pick up on sounds that you cannot hear or find themselves uncomfortable with sounds that seem at a normal level to you. This can lead to problems, especially if the individual is unable to communicate what they are hearing.

Though devices like noise-canceling headphones can help, you may wish to take additional measures to ensure your child is comfortable at home. Here are some ways to modify your home to reduce unwanted sounds and the stress they can bring.

Address the Flooring

Protect from Outdoor Noise Pollution

Additional Considerations for Noises at Home

  • Choose high-quality home audio equipment. The subtle differences in sound quality between different types of audio equipment can be painful for individuals with autism. Invest in higher quality equipment that produces good sound quality.
  • Understand that some individuals with autism will ignore sounds. This presents challenges of its own, because alarms in the home, such as smoke detectors or CO alarms, may be ignored. Consider investing in visual alarms if this is the case.

For more information about the sense of hearing and individuals with autism, and what you can do at home, visit:

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Reduce the Number of Smells in Your Home

Like the sense of touch and the sense of hearing, an autistic individual’s sense of smell can be stronger than that of a neurotypical individual. Sometimes, scents and odors can trigger meltdowns or distress, even when they seem mild to other members of the family. There are measures you can take to reduce the input from smells in your home, particularly when you are remodeling to make it more autism-friendly. Here are some considerations to keep in mind.

Choose Low-Odor Finishes and Building Supplies

  • Choose low-odor building materials when performing home modifications. Paints and varnishes are not the only items that can have VOCs or other types of odors. Flooring, boards, drywall, and adhesives all contain odors as well. When possible, choose low-odor options. When not possible provide ample time for the space to air out with fresh air to remove the odors.
  • Opt for natural fibers instead of synthetic. Natural materials tend to have fewer offensive odors than synthetic materials, so choose them when possible. Even if it does have an odor, it will be from non-toxic materials, which will be easier for the individual with autism to process.

Add Proper Ventilation

  • Invest in proper ventilation for the home. Ventilation will reduce not only the home’s odors from the renovation project but also the general odors in a home including cooking smells. Choose ventilation mechanisms that are properly insulated to protect from noise pollution.
  • Use HEPA filtration methods. Invest in certified HEPA filters for your home’s HVAC system to further remove and neutralize VOCs and other odors.
  • Avoid air fresheners and chemical scents. Air fresheners and candles can add more confusion to your autistic family member’s sensory input, so avoid adding them to the home environment while you seek to battle odors.

For more information about reducing odors in the home and the way the sense of smell affects individuals with autism, visit these resources:

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Make the Home Tactile-Friendly

The sense of touch is something that affects many people with autism intensely. Some find themselves overly sensitive to textures and things they can feel, while others find themselves craving tactile input. Some individuals with autism will experience both of these intensities. This is one area where home modifications can make a big difference. By creating touch-friendly spaces in your home, you can make it more inviting and calming for an autistic child or adult who lives there.

Focus on Textures

  • Add a variety of textures into the space. This can help those who are sensory-seeking find ways to self-calm. Add textures in furnishings, floor coverings, wall coverings, and accessories added to the home. Be aware that individuals with autism may have strong aversions to specific textures, so be sensitive to your loved one’s unique needs.
  • Remove and replace textures the individual finds upsetting. If something is too rough or too smooth, remove it from the environment and replace it with something more tolerable.

Make the Home Durable

Bring Nature Indoors

  • Add plants that are safe for the individual to interact with. Houseplants and an indoor garden can soothe individuals with autism and bring part of nature indoors, which is calming. This also provides something else to touch and feel. Be cautious about plants that are potentially poisonous, because individuals with autism may wish to interact with plants differently than neurotypical people do.
  • Make space for a sensory garden outdoors. Bringing nature inside is a good idea, but it does have its limits. Plant a sensory garden outdoors that will stimulate all five senses, and allow the autistic family member to spend time in the garden often.

Assess Tactile Challenges in the Bathroom

  • Understand the challenges the traditional bathroom creates. Cold toilet seats, harsh cleaning chemicals, slippery floors, and poor ventilation can make bathrooms challenging areas for individuals with autism. Focus on home modifications that reduce these risks. Some are simple, like adding a cushioned toilet seat or soft, warm rug, while others may require some actual home modification.
  • Add non-slip surfaces to the tub and bathroom floors. When individuals with autism struggle with balance and the vestibular system, slippery floors are dangerous. Add non-slip surfaces to slick bathroom and tub floors.
  • Improve ventilation in the bathroom. Poor ventilation can make bathrooms smelly, which makes them uncomfortable spaces for individuals with autism. Invest in better ventilation. If the bathroom is on an outside wall, consider adding a window to improve the comfort of the space.
  • Create a water play area, because individuals with autism are naturally drawn to water. Water plan is another favorite activity for many individuals with autism. Make the bathroom a place where water play is safe. Consider installing a floor drain and protecting surfaces in the bathroom in case the individual with autism chooses to play in the faucet or tub.
  • Add safety features to the bathroom like grab bars. Again, when individuals with autism struggle with balance due to vestibular system concerns, having something to grab can be helpful.

For more information about tactile changes to make for loved ones with autism or sensory processing issues, visit these resources:

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General Considerations for Your Home

Children and adults on the autism spectrum, as well as others with sensory processing concerns, need special considerations at home to help them with their sensory processing and overall functioning. Some home modifications do not fit into categories for specific senses, like taste or hearing. However, these modifications can make a tremendous difference to a child or adult who is battling over-stimulating environments.

Create a Sensory Room

  • Build a room that has the sensory materials your child needs. These are very helpful for families who have autistic family members as they provide a place to meet sensory needs that are different than the neurotypical population. What your home’s sensory room contains will be unique to the needs of your child or family member.
  • Add a swing to the room. Swinging is quite calming for individuals with autism and can help with self-regulation of senses and emotions. Safely mount a swing in your sensory room by mounting it to a ceiling joist. Make sure the swing is strong enough to handle different weights, so it can be used by a young child as well as an adult. A hammock can also help with this need.
  • Add play equipment that allows for large motor movement. Rocking, sliding, and jumping are all movements that individuals with autism sometimes crave. Find out what your child or loved one needs, then add the furniture and equipment that will allow them to safely engage in these behaviors. A small indoor trampoline, indoor slide, or rocking furniture can all be helpful additions to a sensory room. If you do not have the space for these, consider exercise balls, bouncy seats, and similar small items that allow for proprioceptive input and large motor movement.
  • Install or purchase furniture that allows for deep pressure. Bean bags and similar furniture that a child or autistic adult can pile on and around themselves can help create a calming sensory experience that is helpful for those with autism. Deep pressure is important for individuals with autism that crave sensory input or who have proprioceptive sensory needs.
  • Add a ball pit. Ball pits are a helpful sensory experience for those with autism, and they can be installed to a sensory room. If the budget is limited, you can use an inflatable pool with balls inside for the same effect.
  • Add a variety of calm, soothing lighting options. In addition to the regular overhead lighting in the space, add mood lighting, twinkling Christmas lights, spotlights, and more to create the right ambiance. Ensure that the room has the right electrical breaker service to support these lights.
  • Install an air conditioner. The addition of extra lights can make the room hot, and that can be unbearable to an individual with autism. Install a room air conditioner to compensate.
  • Fill the room with tactile and sensory items, but keep it organized. It is easy for a sensory room to become overstimulating if too many items are added without proper organization. Use shelving and bins to add tactile and sensory items in an organized, uncluttered way.
  • Build a climbing wall. A climbing wall is also an important tool in a sensory room for individuals with autism who are prone to climbing furniture. Build one to give a safe place for climbing inside your home.
  • Turn your child’s bedroom into the sensory room if another space is not available. Sometimes you won’t have room in your home to make a separate sensory room. If this is the case, build these ideas into your autistic child or loved one’s bedroom.
  • Create a sensory corner. Another option if a dedicated room is not available is to create a sensory corner that contains many of the sensory input items. To help the individual with autism block out the sounds and visual impact of the rest of the home, use noise-canceling headphones and physical barriers to portion off this part of the room.

Build a Cool-Down Room

Invest in a Generator

  • Purchase and install a generator. Power outages can disrupt the routine of your home and eliminate the electronic devices that can be soothing to your autistic loved one. Installing a generator ensures that you always have access to these items, even if you lose power.
  • Use the generator to keep up with routine. Having your routine stay the same, even during an electrical power outage, is critical to helping your autistic loved one stay comfortable at home.

For more insight into the way a home for an individual with autism might look different than a neurotypical home, visit these resources:

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Consider Important Safety Concerns

Individuals with autism, particularly children, require additional protections that may not be a concern for the neurotypical world. When considering home modifications for autistic family members, make sure to consider safety in the midst of the other considerations and changes you make. From protecting your autistic child from wandering to ensuring the flooring is safe, there are steps you can take to protect your loved one from some of the challenges that neurodiversity can bring.

Concerns About Wandering

Concerns about Burns and Scalding

  • Reduce the risk of burns and scalding. individuals with autism with their increased sense of touch can be more prone to discomfort from hot temperatures.
  • Lower the water heater temperature. You may need to lower the water heater temperature below recommended levels to prevent discomfort for your autistic loved one. Keep the water temperature at 120 degrees or less to avoid scalding or burns.
  • Protect the water heater from tampering. Whether you lock the basement or install a barrier around the water heater, make sure the autistic family member cannot change the water heater temperature.
  • Add locks to stove knobs. Make sure the individual with autism cannot use the stove knobs unless the individual is high functioning enough to cook safely.
  • Consider installing an induction cooktop. Induction cooktops do not create a hot surface. This can be the safest cooktop for a home with an individual with autism because it is practically impossible to burn your hands by touching the cooktop. Also, if the individual with autism turns the cooktop on and leaves it on, the fire risk is minimal.

Protect Children from Furniture

Protect Children from Drowning

Additional Safety Considerations

  • Protect your child from self-injury when head banging. Many people with autism will stim, which refers to performing repetitive movements that help soothe and calm an individual with autism. Some types of stims, like head banging, have the potential to create injuries. Provide a space place in the home where these stims can take place. If you notice that your autistic child or loved one has a favorite place to stim, make that place safe by adding cushions and padding.
  • Consider any other self-injuring behaviors. Each individual with autism is unique, and the potentially self-injuring behaviors that one individual experiences will be different for another individual. If you notice self-injuring behaviors that the home environment could help avoid, make the necessary changes.
  • Install locks on all dangerous storage areas. Medicines, household cleaners, sharp items, electronics that could be dangerous, and other family members’ personal spaces should all be locked and inaccessible to provide an added layer of protection. Keep in mind that simple childproof locks may not be sufficient to help protect autistic children from these risks.
  • Add plexiglass over TVs and picture frames. Shattered glass is a serious safety hazard, so protect your belongings and your autistic loved one from this risk.
  • Consider installing security cameras. If self-injury or wandering are serious concerns, security cameras can give caretakers peace of mind as they consider the best interests of their autistic loved ones. This will give you a tool to use to provide your autistic loved one with some independence within the home, without sacrificing safety. You can always check in on what they are doing, even while allowing them a measure of independence.
  • Take extra measures during renovation or construction, when normal safeguards might not be in place. Home renovations can disrupt your normal routines and introduce new risks to your loved one with autism. Be especially cautious during these times and assess any dangers.

For more considerations about safety at home as it relates to autism, visit:

Conclusion

Millions of people in America are living with an autism diagnosis. Chances are you know someone in your life who is learning to navigate life with this neurological condition. If that person lives in your home or if you are responsible for them, then it is up to you to ensure your home environment is a safe one. These tips, tricks, and resources can help you create a safe haven where your loved one with autism or other sensory concerns can thrive.