We know that each child is unique, therefore autism and autism spectrum disorder can manifest in many ways. One of the hallmarks that kids with autism typically share is a difference in the way that they process sensory information. 

For children with hypersensitivity, neurodivergence comes with a tendency to be easily overstimulated by the world around them. For others, hyposensitivity may drive them to seek stimulation from their environment by making loud noises or engaging in repetitive movements. Many children regularly experience both states. 

Navigating sensory differences is one of the biggest challenges for caregivers of children with autism, especially in families that have both neurotypical and neurodivergent children. If you want to make your home more sensory-friendly, it’s important to strike a balance that honors the needs of all household members.

Here are a few small changes that can make a big difference to a loved one with autism. 

Avoid overwhelming the senses.

For a person with neurodivergence, an ideal home environment allows them to safely explore their senses and retreat when they feel overwhelmed.

When you think about accommodating your loved one’s unique needs, consider all of the senses. 

Sight

Many people with sensory sensitivities find harsh fluorescent lights overwhelming. Natural light is often best, but when that isn’t possible, consider installing a dimmer switch to your interior lights. 

The ability to dial indoor lighting up and down slightly can make family time in common areas of the home more enjoyable for everyone. 

Touch

Children with sensory differences can experience textures with more intensity than neurotypical people. For this reason, they may strongly prefer their clothing, pillows, and blankets to be very soft. 

Caregivers who are completely unbothered by seams, tags, and zippers may have a hard time appreciating how distracting they are to children with hypersensitivity. Fortunately, there are now many options for adaptive clothing that can help kids foster more independence without sacrificing comfort.

For sensory-seeking kids, playtime can be a great opportunity to introduce new textures. Sensory play activities that incorporate paint, sand, and other craft materials can improve kids’ fine motor skills while gently stimulating their senses. 

Taste

Strong, unfamiliar flavors can be off-putting to kids with sensory sensitivities. In addition, aroma, color, and mouthfeel may play particularly important roles in these children’s enjoyment of food. 

If you’ve noticed that your child has gotten insistent on a few “safe” snacks, encourage variety by offering new foods alongside tried-and-true favorites.

Smell

Scented candles, air fresheners, and cleaning products are designed to smell nice, but to kids with sensory differences, they can be strong and unpleasant. 

If a member of your family experiences scents with a lot of intensity, consider choosing unscented versions of household products like laundry detergent, soap, and dish liquid. 

Improving the ventilation in your home and installing an air filtration system can also help dial back unavoidable aromas like the smell of food cooking.

Sound

Insulation is the best way to reduce startling, distracting noises inside your home. Even a few throw rugs can help dampen the sounds of other family members moving about. 

For common areas, agree to keep music and videos at a lower volume. Bluetooth-enabled noise-canceling headphones can allow families to watch or listen to media together while choosing a volume that is comfortable for each of them. 

Create a routine.

While it’s not always feasible, operating on a schedule is a great way to remove some of the unpredictability from your child’s daily life. 

Setting and managing expectations for the whole family can reduce the anxiety some children have around transitioning from one activity to the next. Knowing the sequence of recurring events (for example: dinner, bath time, then bed) creates an important sense of calm for sensitive kids. 

Embrace boundaries.

Regardless of our sensory processing abilities, we all need downtime. An important part of creating a sensory-friendly home is ensuring that all family members have space to retreat and be themselves.

Especially after a challenging or overstimulating event, designate a safe area of your home for decompression. Managing, rather than catastrophizing, stress is critical for healthy development as your child grows.

Interpersonal connections are important for everyone, but they may be especially critical to the healthy development of children with special needs. The ability to relate to others and make friends can help differently-abled kids enjoy improved academic outcomes and better mental health as they grow. 

  “15% of all public school students (7.2 million) receive special education services.”

In 2020-21, 15% (or 72 million) public school students aged 3-21 received special education services under the Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Among these students, the most common need was assistance with a specific learning disability. 

Social skills don’t come as naturally to some kids, but they can develop with time, patience, and practice. Here are a few tips for prioritizing socialization and making it a positive experience for your child.

1. Choose a comfortable setting. 

Socialization is all about meeting new people and trying new things. For kids with special needs, branching out can be easier when at least some aspects of the situation feel familiar. 

This can apply to the venue you choose for a playdate, like a favorite park or your own backyard. It may also extend to details of the experience including snacks and activities. Everyone feels more confident when they know what to expect in a given situation, and confident kids will be more likely to have a positive social experience. 

If your child expresses anxiety over an upcoming playdate, discuss the steps you can take to help them feel more secure. This may include agreeing to either give space or stay close by, or agreeing on a codeword if they begin to feel overwhelmed. 

2. Practice social skills at home. 

Just like role-playing can help us prepare for an important meeting or job interview, rehearsing general social interactions can be helpful for kids with intellectual and developmental differences. 

Interpersonal interaction is more intuitive for some children than for others. Remind your child of the things they do well and the qualities they have to offer in a conversation. Then, make time to practice age-appropriate exchanges like:

Social skills are tough to master, but a little preparation can go a long way toward helping your child feel more at ease in conversations. 

3. Make time for decompression. 

Even if they’ve spent the day doing their favorite activities with people they enjoy, it’s normal for kids with I/DD to feel that their social batteries are drained. 

If you’ve noticed that play dates leave your child exhausted or overstimulated, build in time to help them rebalance. This could mean setting aside time to allow them to share details about their day, or just creating a space for quiet time before dinner or bed. Giving your child the outlet that they need can help make sure they view social time as a positive experience. 

4. Connect with your I/DD community. 

Get familiar with your I/DD resources, and use them to help build a social circle that includes a diverse group of differently-abled friends. 

Teachers and caregivers can be an important source of support as kids practice their social skills. You may also be surprised to discover how many programs specifically designed for special needs kids exist in your community. 

Explore I/DD and sensory-friendly events near you, and you may also discover a vital network of like-minded new friends. 

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