No matter whether you live in a high rise apartment or house with an acre of land it is possible to create an environment or spaces within your home that cater specifically to the additional or differing needs of a child with autism, Aspergers syndrome or any other related autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
How you design, decorate, plan, furnish and layout your home and the individual rooms within it can have an effect on everyone that lives there. Colours, patterns, images, smells, music and lighting among others factors are well known to influence moods, interaction and how much people wish to be in the space. This can be even more so for children who have hyper (over) or hypo (under) sensitive senses. For example, a simple scented candle or air freshener may be overpowering to a child with a very sensitive sense of smell or may cause irritation such as itchy eyes or a runny nose if they are also sensitive to the fragrances used. Many children love bright coloured toys, accessories and furnishings and these are often easily available but this mass of bright colours can be over stimulating and unpleasant to sensitive children. Don’t be afraid to use items marketed for adults if your child prefers them due to colour, texture, volume etc. Just double check they are safe for your child and their needs or only use them while you can supervise.
The tips and suggestions here can be used as they are or adapted and built on with your own ideas. Not all will be possible for all homes and children or families or may simply not work out even if you try. Every family, home and child is different so it can take some time to find what will work best in a given situation.
Tips and Suggestions to Try
1) Try to have some screen free time – no computers, ipads, game consoles, television etc. as they can discourage interaction with others. Alternatively chose games and activities that are multi player such as many games for the Nintendo Wii.
2) Other than your child’s real favourites (and security items), rotate toys, books and activities. Keep some out to be used and others packed away in boxes, then swap these over weekly, monthly or whatever suits you best. This can encourage children to try new things and develop new skills.
3) Leave open spaces in rooms so children can move freely. This is especially true of they enjoy spinning, jumping or bouncing etc. as a sensory stimuli. Keep breakables out of these areas and providing items such as bean bags, space hoppers or small children’s trampolines can help save furniture from being jumped on and damaged. Active games such as Wii Fit can be useful too.
4) Keep items organised in their own boxes and containers. Adding labels can help teach spelling and language too. These could consist of a small simple picture and text in a bold clear font. Keeping toys and other items organised not only makes them easier to find and use but also makes putting them away easier as everything has a clear place. This adds structure to a chore that can sometimes seem overwhelming with no obvious start point.
5) The inflexibility displayed by many children with autism is a result of fear rather than awkwardness or rebellion. Using play such as a board game that is based on a shopping trip or food may help to make these feel more familiar and less scary in real life.
6) Games of all types can help in practising and learning a range of skills including: turn taking, working in a team, focus, forward planning, social interaction and managing disappointment.
7) If you want your child to use something, put it where it can be easily seen and reached. This also applies to food in the fridge and cupboards.
8) Separate large packs of foods into individually portioned bags or containers. This is much cheaper than buying pre-portioned packs and still allows you to control portions and give your child the ability to take part in mealtimes: for example choosing from a selection for their lunch.
9) Use appropriately sized items such as knives and forks and glasses so that they are easier to manage. Keep in mind that some children may not like the feel of some materials in their hands or mouths and so avoid them.
10) Involve your child in cooking and preparing food. Not only can they learn a wealth of information: weights, measures, science, maths etc. but it may help encourage a picky eater to try new foods or to be less anxious about what has gone into their food.
11) Use visual timetables and schedules and display them in a prominent place. These don’t have to be fancy or expensive to be effective. Software such as Microsoft Publisher has many templates available that can be used to design and print weekly or monthly planners if you don’t feel you can start from scratch. Favourite characters, activities or interests can be incorporated into the designs.
A regular bought calendar and stickers can also be used. Laminated picture cards (such as those seen in PECS systems) are another way to create visual supports. Sticky back Velcro can be used to attach them to a main board.
12) Think about the layout and view of your home from your child’s point of view. What looks great to you may be difficult to see to someone much smaller or even appear unpleasant or scary.
13) Used named coat hooks so children have somewhere specific to place their coats, school bags, shoes etc. rather than them being left all over the house and difficult to find later.
14) Allowing your child to do simple tasks such as water plants, setting the table or doing housework tasks such as hovering can help them feel involved, build self-esteem and show them that they can succeed.
15) Small steps and achievements often create the greatest long-term results and gains. A small task will seem less daunting and achievable to your child and each small success can will them on to trying further tasks either at the time or in future. Use these successes as reminders when your child is worried about failing or upset and disappointed when they make mistakes.
16) Use limited choices so that your child can make their own decisions about things such as what they wear without being overwhelmed by too much choice or it taking them a long time to decide. Rather than sending them to their rooms to get dressed, pick out some clothes yourself and then offer them the choice. For example, ‘Would you like to wear the red t-shirt or the green t-shirt today?’ This method can work it pretty much any situation and you may find that when a child feels that they have some control over their own lives they are less upset and unsettled by things that they cannot control.
17) Make getting dressed easier by storing clothes as outfits, maybe rolled together or stored in bags or compartments in a larger drawer or cupboard. This way your child (or you) can pick one out and have everything needed to get dressed rather than having to remember and find each item. Great for when you’re in a hurry or running late too.
18) Swimming goggles are great for children who don’t like having their hair washed or water in their eyes or face. They solve the problem and add an aspect of fun to a task often found unpleasant or unnecessary by children with autism. You could even add a bit of role play or make it into a game.
19) Create a space that is only for your child on the spectrum where they can go when they need to recharge or get away from everything else in the house. Your child may have already chosen this space for themselves: is there somewhere or something they always run to when upset or need to calm down? Allocate this space as theirs and make it safe if needed. Generally the best spaces are confined, quiet and give a secure cocoon like feel. Walk in cupboards, under mid-height or bunk beds, under desks and tables or pop up tents can work well. Being able to hide under a pile of blankets is another good option. Spaces can include cushions, blankets, soft toys, books, sensory toys etc. or nothing at all depending on your child’s preference.
20) Using clear containers where possible can make it easier for children to find things but be aware that the vast array of colours and items then on constant view maybe over stimulating from a sensory point of view.
© 2013 Claire
Claire (author) from Lincolnshire, UK on June 27, 2013:
Thank you. Glad it helped and hope the ideas work out for you too. We are mostly organised though sometimes an idea will work for a few weeks and then it doesn't any more. Helps being on the spectrum myself, gives me an insight on where to start.
Mary Kelly Godley from Ireland on June 27, 2013:
Great tips. I use some of them already but you have definitely given me more ideas (sounds like you are organized and on top of things good for you) which I will try and introduce now over the summer break. Voted up and shared on Twitter and FB.