By Sarah Fowler
We recently were contacted by Wondermoms.org to share some articles through our blog. We very much appreciate it, because the one we’re are discussing today is so important for the autistic community and those who struggle with sensory integration. So, for our last week in Autism Acceptance Month, we wanted to provide you with some simple life-hacks for Sensory-Friendly Home Modifications for Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. Our blog has taken the information from this article and synthesized it for you below.
Autism and Sensory integration
Many of you know that with autism comes difficulty with sensory integration. Sensory integration is the neurobiological process of interpreting and managing the sensory input they receive. There are 3 main sensory systems: The tactile system (e.g., touch, pain, temperature, and pressure), the vestibular system (e.g., movement, balance, head position), and the proprioceptive system (e.g., awareness of where one’s body is in space and time). 
When you have autism, sensory input typically lands in one of two extremes. On one end of the spectrum, sensory input is extremely overwhelming. On the other end, sensory input is hardly felt. Those who barely feel sensory input are called “sensory seeking.” These individuals crave additional sensory input because their’s is diminished. Those who have sensory overwhelm fall into the category of “sensory sensitivity” or sensory avoiding. 
Sensory sensitivity may look like extreme sensitivity to light, sounds, touch, smells, and other sensory stimuli. If you have never experienced sensory overload, I’ll be the first to tell you it can be quite debilitating.
POV: Sensory Processing Disorder
Last summer, I had major brain and neck surgery to fix brainstem compression secondary to a genetic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. We were obviously expecting pain during the healing process, but nobody expected the struggles with sensory integration.
Fun fact: The neck and jaw are the key body parts that are responsible for proprioception.
Since I had the base of my skull fused to the top 2 bones of my neck, my body could not (and still cannot) process sensory input appropriately. I still remember the car ride home from the hospital. The light was so bright, the bumps were so nauseating, and the sound was so overwhelming. I walked into the house and heard the refrigerator hum. But to me it wasn’t humming, it was belting. Within five minutes of being inside, I broke down and had a major panic attack from the sensory overload. It came out of nowhere. One second I was okay, the next second I could hear any and everything as if it was being blared through a stereo system at a heavy metal concert. Since the hum of the fridge and fluorescent lights was too much, I tried sitting outside, but the crows were too loud, the sun was too bright, I heard people cutting their lawn several blocks away, and the occasional car passing was as if a jet engine was taking off 10 ft in front of me. I couldn’t even look at my phone screen for weeks. To this day, I still have to sit outside of the house with noise-canceling headphones while my family is vacuuming. I have tried staying inside to push through it, but each time without failure, I am left curled in a ball on the floor in the midst of a panic attack. It happens too fast to stop, so I’ve found it’s better to just avoid it all together.
My tactile system also kicked into overdrive. Because many of my nerves were severed, my body didn’t know where or how hard it was being touched. While my mom and dad took care of my wound, they would periodically graze my skin in one place, only for me a stabbing pain in another place. My tactile system was, as my doctor says, “wonky.” I was sensitive to anything touching the back of my head and neck. Shirts became uncomfortable, necklaces were unbearable, and my hair drove me insane.
While I in no way could ever understand what it is like to live with autism, this experience was like looking through a window peering into sensory processing disorders. If you’re interested in learning more about what it’s like to experience sensory overwhelm, check out these articles:
- These Five Videos Show What It Is Like To Experience Sensory Overload
- 21 People Describe What Sensory Overload Feels Like
How does this affect home life?
Home is supposed to be a safe place where you spend time with the ones you love. But what happens when a home is overwhelming? What happens when, like me, the refrigerator is too loud? Or chores can’t be completed because of sensory overwhelm?
Below are some changes from the article we mentioned that you can make in your home to make your child feel more comfortable and at peace in their home environment!
Visual input can be hard to process. Choose lighting that is as close to natural light as possible. Fluorescent lights may be too bright, too loud, and they may flicker. Dimmable LED lighting is preferred. 
When you’re thinking about painting or decorating, try to avoid bright colors. Many people with autism see colors brighter than neurotypical people. Instead, go for muted or neutral colors. Keep decorations simple and monochromatic. 
Organization is very important. Clutter creates chaos even for neurotypical brains. Organization helps make routines easier. This means putting items in distinct places where they belong. Shelves, bookcases, and bin systems help create an organized home. 
Open concepts are helpful for someone who struggles with sensory integration. Removing barriers that break up the line of sight allows an individual to preview a space before entering it. Less furniture is more because clutter is distressing to people with autism. You could also incorporate an in-home walking loop for pacing behaviors. Stimming behaviors such as pacing are not a bad thing as they can help reduce stress. 
For more information about visual stimuli in your home and how it affects an autistic loved one, visit :
- TheraSpecs: Light Sensitivity in Autism
- College of Optometrists in Vision Development: Autism and Vision
- Living Autism Foundation: How to Create an Autism-Friendly Environment
- Aspergers 101: Aspergers and Sensitivity to Color – Interior Designer Focuses on Interiors for Those with Autism
- Inside the Autism Experience: Autism and Visual Clutter
Pay Attention to the Sounds in Your Home
Hard flooring can be replaced with noise-dampening carpeting. Even though footsteps may seem unnoticeable to you, it may be distressing to You can also invest in a carpet pad and rugs that help dampen sounds on hard floors. 
Outdoor noise pollution can trigger sensory overwhelm. Thick insulated windows are good at blocking noise. So is sound-absorbing insulation. If you cannot afford to do the whole house, focus on your child’s bedroom first. When it comes to stereos, TV, or audio equipment, high quality is better since low quality tends to be associated with high frequency sounds like white noise that can trigger sensory overwhelm. It is important to remember that some individuals with autism will ignore sounds. If this is the case, think about visual alarms. 
For more information about the sense of hearing and individuals with autism, and what you can do at home, visit :
- Autism Speaks: Autism and Auditory Processing Disorder: What’s the Connection?
- Synapse: When The World Won’t Shut Up
- Friendship Circle: Noise Control – 11 Tips for Helping Your Child with Autism Deal with Noise
- Northwestern Early Intervention Research Group: Sound Sensitivity in Autism
- National Autism Association: Autism and Sound Sensitivity – More Than Just a Mild Issue
Reduce the Number of Smells in Your Home
People with autism typically have an increased sensitivity to smells, which means no Yankee Candles, perfumes, air fresheners, and cleaners with low odor. Proper ventilation can also help reduce home odors. HEPA filters for your HVAC system can also help with odors. 
For more information about reducing odors in the home and the way the sense of smell affects individuals with autism, visit these resources :
- Spectrum: Test Detects Unusual Sense of Smell in Children with Autism
- US National Library of Medicine: Environmental Chemical Exposures and Autism Spectrum Disorders – A Review of the Epidemiological Evidence
- Aspergers 101: Sensory Processing Difficulties – Smell with ASD
- National Institutes of Health: Volatile Organic Compounds
- Car Autism Roadmap: Sensory Difference in ASD – Smell
Make the Home Tactile Friendly
Home modifications that are tactile friendly can make a huge difference for individuals on the spectrum. Some ideas for sensory seekers include incorporating different textures in the home, bringing nature inside, adding non-slip surfaces to the bathroom floor/tub, creating a water play area, and adding safety features to the bathroom like grab bars. Some textures may be too rough or too smooth. If so, remove it and replace it with something more tolerable. Make sure you understand that children with autism like to explore their environment by touching everything, so make sure things within their reach are safe to touch. 
For more information about tactile changes to make for loved ones with autism or sensory processing issues, visit these resources :
- Sensory Processing Disorder: Environmental Modifications to Help Children with sensory Processing/Sensory Integration Disorders
- Your Therapy Source: Modifications for Toilet Training
- Understood.org: Sensory Processing Issues – Strategies You Can Try at Home
- UCSF: The Unbearable Sensation of Being – Living with Sensory Processing Disorder
Build a room with sensory materials that your child needs. If another room is not available, use your child’s bedroom. Worst comes to worst, create a sensory corner! An OT can assist you in finding appropriate materials to add to your sensory room. Some basic ideas include a swing, sensory bins with items hidden in rice, play equipment for gross motor movements such as slides, trampolines, climbing walls, or ball pits. You can also purchase furniture that allows for deep pressure like bean bags. Make sure to incorporate calm, soothing lighting options. While adding all of these items to your sensory room, make sure it is still organizing. 
Another room to consider is a cool-down room. A cool-down room provides a safe place for a child to have a meltdown. Some suggestions for a cool-down room include strengthening windows, adding soft mats, only allow objects with softened edges, control the lighting with a dimmer, hang drapes not blinds, and use velcro instead of curtain rods. 
Another thing to consider is power outages. If at all possible, purchase and install a generator. Power outages disrupt routines and can be triggering to those with autism. 
For more insight into the way a home for an individual with autism might look different than a neurotypical home, visit these resources :
- Autism Speaks: 10 Ways My House Looks Different Than Yours
- My Child Without Limits: Home Modifications
- Autism Connect: Home Modification for Children with Autism
- Growing Minds: Autism Programs – Creating an Optimum Home Environment for Children with Autism
Consider Safety Concerns
Safety of the home is of the utmost importance for children with autism. If there are concerns about wandering, you can install tall, privacy fencing to reduce visual stimuli and allow your child to play safely outdoors. You can also use proximity alarms, door chimes, additional locks, and sloped window sills to prevent climbing. 
If there are concerns about burns/scalding, lower the water heater temperature, protect the water heater from tampering, add locks to stove knobs, and consider installing an induction cooktop. Induction cooktops don’t create a hot surface. 
To protect children from furniture, you can tether bookcases and other furniture to the wall to prevent them from tipping, install built-in shelving, mount media equipment to the wall, bolt dressers to the wall, use two anchors when anchoring furniture to the wall, and make sure they are installed into wall studs or solid wood. 
It’s also important to understand that many children with autism are fascinated by water. THerefore, you want to have the best safety precautions if you have a swimming pool. This means adding a fence and/or pool alarm.
Other ways to protect your child with autism :
- If headbanging is a concern, provide a safe place in the home where they can do so.
- Consider other self-injuring behaviors and add precautions as needed.
- Install locks on dangerous storage areas.
- Add plexiglass over TVs and picture frames.
- Consider security cameras.
- Take extra measures during renovation/construction when normal safeguards are not in place.
For more considerations about safety at home as it relates to autism, visit :
- Autism Society: Safety in the Home
- Autism Speaks: Safety in the Home
- Hidden Treasures: Creating a Safe Environment for Your Child with Autism
- Occupational Therapy: Autism & Safety – Keeping Individuals with Autism Safe in Their Homes and Communities
- Psychology Today: How Can We Help Keep Children, Teens, and Adults With Autism Safe
It’s up to you to ensure your home environment is a safe one. Hopefully, these resources can help you create a home where you, your child, or a loved one feel at peace.