How I adjusted my home for a loved one with autism
By Paige Mitchell | February 21, 2019
Paige is a freelance writer who’s passionate about lending new perspective and awareness of good causes and philanthropic organizations.
For many living with autism spectrum disorder, the seemingly small task of visiting a house that isn’t your own can be like walking into a minefield of new noises, sights, smells, and feelings. Folks with autism suffer from hypersensitivity and sensory overload, so otherwise ordinary experiences like this can be totally overwhelming.
Of course, the last thing you want is for anyone to feel uncomfortable in your home. If you have a family member with special needs and want to adjust your home to make it a more sensory-friendly home, here are some tips to get you started.
The first step in adjusting our home for my cousin on the autism spectrum was to try to understand where he was coming from and how he was perceiving our environment. We took a walk through our house in his shoes. No home is perfect, but we kept an eye out for anything that could potentially make our home uncomfortable or even inaccessible for him or others with special needs.
It wasn’t until recently that I understood why my cousin always seemed so uncomfortable when he’d visit my family’s home. Looking around my house I found that the dog roamed freely and even jumped on furniture, my mom runs a daycare out of her house and had several children romping around downstairs every afternoon, and my dad is a total television junkie with NASCAR and mob movies blasting loudly through the living room.
The adjective “normal” should always be used loosely when describing any household or family, but erring on the side of less surprise has been much appreciated by my cousin who depends on a calm environment with a regular schedule.
Create a realistic routine
Like most members of my family along with most of my friends, those with autism also thrive on schedules, so we’ve tried our best to keep the whole household on a set schedule for my cousin when he visits or stays overnight.
That means waking up at the same time everyday for school (and maybe even on the weekends), carving out dedicated time for play, substituting a homework-free day with a learning project, sitting down together for dinner at the same time every evening, and enforcing a strict curfew for bedtime.
A schedule is not limited to time either. I remember my aunt telling us how she dreaded snow days. If school was cancelled, it threw my cousin’s schedule way off and it caused both of them to have a bad day. She learned that staying in “school mode” on a day off seemed to help. Instead of frolicking in the snow all day, my cousin would have a much more enjoyable time doing homework, reading at the library, and playing the piano.
There will inevitably be lapses in the schedule, but being able to create something that my cousin can expect and depend on a regular basis has created a much calmer and more relaxing home environment for him.
Many of us need time to rest and relax in a safe, quiet space that is void of noise and distraction. This is especially true for those with autism who are easily overwhelmed. I suggest making a special place just for your loved one where they can visit whenever they need a breather or if they’re feeling anxious. This can be something as simple as a spare bedroom that’s accessible and comfortable. After all, downtime and alone time are essential for all of us.
My cousin has always had a habit of escaping the commotion of family gatherings by retreating to my parents room where there’s a single lamp, a rocking chair, and the door can be closed. These small breaks in interaction help him get through each birthday party and holiday still to this day.
Tune into your own senses
In adjusting our home, we also learned the importance of being aware of irritating smells, sounds, and sights that could cause any houseguest to feel uncomfortable, let alone one whom is especially sensitive. After all, a clogged garbage disposal, leaky faucet, or flickering light can affect everyone’s mood and sense of safety.
A prime example in my own home was our monster of a washing machine. It was a brand new model but it rattled to no end. On the occasion that my cousin was visiting, we’d either shut the laundry room door or wait to run a load of laundry altogether.
Obviously, you need light and noise in your home in order for it to function, but using strategic lighting and calming noises can prove to create a more relaxed ambiance instead for your loved one.
For example, my cousin prefers lamps to overhead lighting, as it creates a soft, welcoming glow. He also likes the sounds of nature and fresh air from an open window rather than a squeaky ceiling fan or blasted box fan set on high speed.
Don’t be afraid to blatantly ask your visitor whether they are comfortable. Their answer may surprise you. You might not have noticed how loud the phone rang as you let it go to voicemail when a telemarketer called, which likely startled everyone in the room. The overhead fixture could be casting a harsh glare across the television. You may also be able to lend some perspective to your family member or friend by explaining why things are the way they are.
You’ll likely have to educate other members of your household of the potential triggers that could make your guest feel uncomfortable.