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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.