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Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Karen Wang

Autistic Home Decorating: Make your home autism friendly

You know you’ve entered an autism-friendly home when....
  • The toilet paper is not where you expected it to be, and the paper towels are locked up.
  • There’s a swing in the middle of the living room, and instead of chairs or a sofa, there are piles of pillows everywhere.
  • Instead of family photos, there are pictures of mathematical equations on the wall.
  • One room is all white or all beige, and another room is filled with bright, mismatched colors and artwork.
  • The bedroom has wall-to-wall mattresses with lots of body pillows and no bedframes.
  • A wide range of art supplies, children’s books, musical instruments and educational toys are packed onto open shelving in every available space, making it difficult to walk through the home.
  • Everything is labeled with a word and a picture.
  • There are rules and instructions posted in the bathroom, dining room and closet.
  • There’s a separate room just for the Legos and marble runs.
OK, we don’t have a swing in our living room.  We have a mini-trampoline, balance board and a small climbing structure with a slide in the living room, along with a beat-up sofa.  But I do know someone at the Friendship Circle who installed a swing/trapeze in her living room and arranged the rest of her home around it. Families in the autism community do what they have to do to make their homes livable, as stimming, special interests and sensory integration become a huge part of family life. How can we make our homes accessible to an autistic lifestyle?

Start With The Sensory Environment

Healthy Sensory EnvironmentA healthy sensory environment provides opportunities for movement, stimulation and lack of stimulation. Every person has different sensory needs and levels of tolerance.  Soft, natural lighting is better for mood and attention than artificial lighting; pillows on soft furniture and quilts on walls absorb and soften sounds. Research has repeatedly found associations between color and mood - for example, some shades of blue may help with creativity and calmness. It may be advantageous to have one area of the home filled with bright colors and activities that the family enjoys, including a television and stereo, and another area of the home with blank walls, soft colors, soft textures and quiet activities such as books or puzzles. Exercise, vestibular input and proprioceptive input are also key to an autistic lifestyle, so space must be made for these as well.  If space is limited, a balance board or mini-trampoline can be stored in a closet and brought out when necessary.  Here is a list of 26 sensory integration tools that you can incorporate into your home environment.

Work Space

One of the most impressive features of autism is the ability to become consumed completely by a preferred topic or activity.  In several of her books including “Thinking in Pictures” and “The Way I See It,” author Temple Grandin advises caregivers to use these “special interests” to steer individuals with autism toward academic or career goals. For this reason, it may be necessary to devote a small area of the home to the pursuit of special interests and goals.  Right now my son’s special interest is math, and his work table is littered with papers, flash cards and workbooks.

Space For Life Skills

In the past 15 years, studies in the USA, UK, Ireland and Sweden have all found that more than 95% of individuals with autism are unable to live independently as adults - including those with high IQs and those who received intensive early intervention. If independent living is a personal goal, then it is imperative that lessons in life skills begin early and continue through childhood into adulthood.  We labeled and re-arranged our cupboards, shelving and closets so that everything is accessible to our son as he learns how to communicate his needs, do dishes and laundry, clean up after himself and keep track of his own schedule. We include him in all family and community-based activities, and we break down tasks into simple steps so that he can learn them over time.  Here is a detailed explanation of how we taught him everyday chores.

Space For Eating

Both of my children have difficulty with solid food.  I found that it was necessary to block out as much outside stimulation as possible in the area where we eat so that they could focus on chewing and swallowing their food. We use the dining area only for eating, because I don’t want them to associate the area with other activities.  My husband and I try to keep conversation light and cheerful during meals, and we usually have a family activity in a different room after the meal, so that our kids have something to look forward to after finishing their meal.

Space For Rest

Sleep, insomnia and night-waking are hot topics in the autism community.  Environmental factors can make a big difference in the quality of rest. For years, my son used to wake up in a panic during the night, so my husband and I kept his twin bed next to our bed - that was the only way to help everyone get (barely) adequate sleep.  My son has slept in his own room for many years now, and I’ve found other ways to help him sleep through the night:
  • Blackout curtains
  • Paint the bedroom walls a dark color
  • Use a weighted blanket
  • Get a white noise machine (we use an air cleaner as a white noise machine)
  • Buy a mattress that doesn’t bounce and jiggle all night, such as a latex or memory foam mattress - and use a box spring with no bed frame
  • Use body pillows to encourage tummy sleeping or side sleeping, which can alleviate nighttime indigestion or certain types of breathing problems
  • Try to use the bedroom only for sleep, so that the mind automatically associates the room with rest
  • Limit the use of electric lights after sunset, and take a walk outdoors at dusk to boost natural melatonin levels in the body

Honor Special Interests, Talents and Achievements

Since his early infancy, I’ve noticed that architecture profoundly affects my son’s emotional and cognitive awareness.  He especially loves large structures that have many levels, such as skyscrapers, roller coasters and the Eiffel Tower. We have photos and his drawings of his favorite structures on magnet boards and photo boards around the house.  We display his school work so that he can take pride in his achievements.  Because we get a lot of questions about geography and science in our house, we also have a large map of the world and a periodic table of the elements displayed at a child’s eye level. [caption id="attachment_6916" align="alignright" width="300"]Mandelbrot fractal Mandelbrot fractal, design by Louie Wang[/caption] By honoring my children’s interests, I am encouraging lively discussion and language development. When we got married, my husband explained to me that large pictures of faces made him uncomfortable.  He doesn’t like the feeling of eyes staring at him from a painting or large photo - but small snapshots are OK.  He’s the type of person who would be perfectly happy with plain white walls in every room...but that would drive me crazy! We hit upon a happy compromise.  My husband is an engineer who finds beauty in mathematics, and I just happen to have a collection of handmade quilts with geometric patterns from my mother, grandmothers and great-aunts. [caption id="attachment_6917" align="alignright" width="300"]Golden Ratio Golden Ratio = 1.6180339887, design by Orson Wang[/caption] Now that we have children, those quilts would get pulled down and trampled; so instead we display my husband’s artwork, which is all mathematical designs, such as the Mandelbrot set and the Golden Ratio.  I guess there’s just something about math that makes it feel like home. What makes a home autism-friendly to you?  Please share your home decorating tips!

WRITTEN ON November 15, 2013 BY:

Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"