A home is made to shelter–to shelter is to provide a safe space; this is exactly what Autistics need–how can we meet the challenges of the world around us if our own homes aren’t conducive to our mental, emotional, and physical health? Everyone needs such a space–Autistics perhaps more so.
The following are some general notes about the things I have done to make home a ‘safe’ and ‘relaxed’ place for myself and my children–these or other things might work for you and your Autistic child–it is important to pay close attention to any ‘tells’ your child might exhibit to help you build the environment that is going to support your family and everything your Autistic children do, learn, and experience as they grow.
***As always, my children’s names have been replaced by North, East, South, and West***
Home Sanctuary Thoughts/Tips
Natural light in the house is limited by sheers or blinds in the windows–all my children and myself prefer sheers but often had blinds in the apartments we lived in. I often use dark, solid colored drapes to cover the sheers when even filtered light becomes too much.
Artificial lights–I have used low wattage and more lately, LED soft glow bulbs. We rarely turn on overheads and if an above light fixture has florescent bulbs, I don’t turn it on at all and in fact, tape the light switch down. Another trick is that several styles of overhead lighting have multiple bulbs in one fixture–take all of them out but one, or maybe two and/or decrease the wattage/change to LED’s.
Too much light of any kind was liable to send North into ‘fits’ or ‘stimming’ activities.
Holiday Lighting– three of my four Autistic children like LED Holiday style colored lights (two preferring them to blink slowly/fade, one liking them static). They are happy to have the lights up all year long–one of them, not so much. None of us like rapid blinking lights at all.
NightLights– are usually LED or the kind that throw soft light stars on the ceiling. I have also found that LED nightlights that simulate gently moving aqua/water like waves to be effective.
I will filter-layer natural lighting…not only utilizing sheers, but sun-catchers, prisms, and plants as additional ways to diffuse the light coming in from outside. If there was a way to live in an old church I would do it, as stained glass is my favorite form of dispersed light. Florescent lighting is a nightmare. It gives me massive headaches, prevents my concentrating on anything and sometimes will give me nosebleeds if exposed to it too long. It makes me feel sick and tired all at once. However, I continue to get up at night and enjoy the moonlight to this day. As for the holiday lights…I prefer static white.
The television can both calm or over-stimulate. A natural pattern developed where I would have the television on for the few children’s programs that would calm North as he indirectly watched the screen and rocked–and then when he would start spinning or flapping, tapping…I would turn it off. This is often how we built routines, without really knowing we were doing it I think–and the same naturally developed with my other kids–for West, screen time is particularly good or bad–he’s very sensitive to light patterns…East never really got into watching television even when very young–she naturally avoids things in which she might inadvertently see something that disturbs her and prefers listening to her headphones.
I never was a big television watcher, though now I will watch documentaries in long marathons (anything about the natural world, politics, archeology, and psychology)–books were more my thing so this wasn’t really a problem for me, but early in my marriage, my (now ex) husband would often become angry because he would want to watch television after a long day of work/after dinner, and it would often ‘set North off’ causing him to run back and forth crashing into walls, spinning, or rocking in a corner within a circle of his little toy cars (all lined up in the color spectrum Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, and Purple–he had done this on his own since he was about two years old).
Sound. Sound was another extreme. Rushing water, rain…was always difficult for North. Turning on and off the faucet to do the dishes could make him very upset and have him crashing into the kitchen walls. He liked the hum of the fridge and would often be sitting beside it, leaning his head on the door. I would run his baths BEFORE bringing him into the bathroom. Of course fire alarms were a problem, both if one went off at home (if I over-browned some cookies) or school fire drills, he would clamp his hands to his ears, cry and often scream as his body would go completely rigid.
Classical music I often played in the house, softly, in the background and occasionally various radio stations. North tolerated Classical particularly well and he also seemed to enjoy music from the 50’s and 60’s. He was a great fan of both The Beach Boys & Ace Of Base…he was something of an eclectic by age four or five.
Two of us enjoy the nighttime sound machines/apps that play nature sounds.
Dangerous as it could potentially be, (and I in no way recommend this to anyone–DO NOT do this) I often removed batteries from smoke detectors and didn’t always remember to put them back in at night. Fire alarms make me cringe and grind my teeth–it’s all I can do not to clap my hands over my own ears. As for music–I love most types, with the exception of rap and club music which often has overwhelming or over-patterned beats for me. I have the words of thousands of songs in my brain and can recall them perfectly even now. I have always enjoyed singing to myself. North liked to hum. I find the sound of rain comforting, and I like the sound of ‘typing keys’ on old typewriters.
Colors were muted or in deep tones. Generally speaking furniture was dark blue or brown (or a deep neutral beige). Blankets, throw pillows, beanbags–oh how North loved to sit in beanbags–were generally deep blue, forest green, occasionally a really dark red. From early on North seemed to be particularly drawn to greens and rainbows and most of the things in his own room reflected this. I never had many patterns on anything–patterns could either fascinate him or drive him to stim. Each of my Autistic children would have STRONG color preferences–and these would be reflected in their rooms and our home. It just made everyone more relaxed.
In our home, everyone knows their own preferred colors–so everyone usually has their own towels, plates, bowls…etc…in their color choice–this is especially helpful with two of my children who also have ‘germ’ related OCD issues. They clean their own bowls/etc and know that no one else uses that color, and this lowers anxiety. Ditto with the bath towels.
I myself prefer muted colors–blacks and dark greys, navy blue and deep green/dark sage. White, oddly, is my favorite color (followed closely by that green-grey you only see in the Atlantic ocean)–but outside of window sheers, I almost never use it as it is not Autism/child-friendly in terms of cleaning and it drives me mental to see a discoloration on anything white or cream coloured. Funny enough most of our apartment walls over the years have been white and it has really upset me. I see every smudge, every fingerprint–just stands out like a beacon–it is overwhelming sometimes and the white walls of the places we have lived have always made me uncomfortable. Whenever a landlord allowed it, I would paint the walls–beige or greys…and in the kids rooms, I would make fantasy murals in a simplistic style with curleque trees, oversized mushrooms, scenes of nature and such..all in soft, muted, or their favored colours–and never in a busy style. Most landlords won’t allow it though.
Scents and smells–okay, for all you NT’s out there, this is HUGE and probably one of the areas where you will most likely run into trouble with your Autistic kids without even realizing it. Toss out the Fabreeze–toss out your air fresheners, plug-ins, Lysol sprays, those cleaners and soaps that you adore, and bleach,…even strong scented deodorants and perfumes–shampoos even. Nine chances out of ten your kids are sensitive to such things in terms of their skin tolerance anyway…but scents can drive us mental. For North, later on we found he could tolerate the scent of pine–providing it wasn’t too strong, but cinnamon can send him over the edge. South can’t stand perfumey-flowery smells–none of my children can tolerate the smell of cigarette smoke. East and South, can’t stand the smell of most cleaners in particular.
Food smells can be particularly noxious–see my notes on this in ‘taste’…
Buy a Shark Mop! Brilliant little device. Works pretty much like any mop but needs NO CLEANERS and cleans by steam that is generated from a small water reservoir that you can easily refill. Your floors will be spotless, look great, and you kids won’t be climbing the walls from the scent of the cleaners. Economical too as the mop ‘pads’ are washable. I keep a small basket under the sink for used ones until wash day.
I would strongly suggest here that you start looking at environmentally friendly products. Dishsoaps like BioKleen, Laundry soaps like Ecos…or at the very least, try to ensure that soaps in general have no colors/dyes, are free of scents, and very mild. This goes for fabric softeners as well. For myself, many cleaners (much like florescent lighting) make my nose bleed, give me headaches, and leave me feeling unwell. For the most part, I use organic/natural products or simple baking soda and vinegar.
Tactile– Fabric feel matters and what feels acceptable to one Autistic may be the opposite to another. My kids tend to like smooth, soft textures with minimal ‘bumps’ of any kind. I tend to stick with cottons, cotton flannel, smooth leathers, rayon, and super soft fleece. We all love the super-soft cotton tshirt material. East likes the feel of fur especially.
When North was little, and before he was diagnosed, I think he was a little over two years old, we took him to hunt Easter eggs at a family members house–they had cut the lawn the day before. North only found a single egg because he spent the rest of his time methodically cleaning the bits of grass still lying about the yard from his fingers. It clearly bothered him a great deal.
South to this day (and he is now 16) will wear socks inside out or we purposely buy socks with no toe-seam. The bumpy line across his foot bugs him–and it drives him nuts when ‘wiggly socks’ don’t stay put on his leg. He also will not buckle the toe strap of any sandal–but leaves the front of his shoe to kind of flap–again, he doesn’t like the sandal strap across his foot. West and myself prefer to be barefoot whenever possible and generally dislike shoes of any kind.
I can’t abide clothing on at night if I am under covers…the pull of the material drives me right out of my skin.
None of us like tight fitting clothing, clothing that drags across our bodies, or is too heavy/too light. Most of us prefer long sleeves–the exception being West who prefers to either be naked completely or wear as little as humanly possible regardless of the temperature.
East, when she was young…clear up until about 11 years old would only shower with a swimsuit on–the feel of the water via the shower head was simply too much otherwise. Mind you this is the same girl who likes to fling herself into the public pool, ocean, or any other large body of water she can find–even before she knew how to swim…
Blankets–get lots. I recommend fleece…soft and easy to wash and dry. East loved to make ‘nests’ in her bed, cardboard boxes, laundry baskets, her closet, and in any small cupboard, etc… my solution to having her drag a large comforter all over the place (and get frustrated in the process) was to buy many fleece throw blankets in her preferred colors–she would then construct her nests as she chose.
Weighted blankets work for some Autistic kids…two of my four loved them. Weighted blankets have pellets sewn in channels along the blanket’s length. The additional weight of the blankets has a calming effect on many Autistics. If you’d like to try one for your child, they are available online at special-needs sites…or Etsy.
I myself despise rough or bumpy materials, am not crazy about nylon; I flat out hate polyester, and I’m allergic to Latex. Of all materials though I love GLASS–it’s smoothness, curves, coolness to the touch, and play with light just fascinate me. Plastic bothers me and I don’t like it to touch my lips–though it can often be smooth like glass, it nonetheless feels less so to me–I noticed the difference immediately.
Furniture–Less is more. Think sparse–the less furniture there is, the less things to navigate and/or to bump into. Design tip–look to Asian style decor…clean lines, natural fabrics and good flow. Don’t crowd a room with furniture–we will only bump into it all the time anyway.
Taste– This will most likely be another huge issue for you and your Autistic child and it goes hand in hand with smell–so it’s double trouble.
I have said for years that many vegetables have either a heavy soil taste (even when scrubbed clean), and more often than not, taste like metal on the tongue–I often taste copper. Be aware that your Autistic child is most likely not being ‘willful’ in not eating their vegetables, they may very well taste differently to them than to you. I don’t know why this is though. I have a theory that perhaps we are more adept at tasting chemicals and such used on produce/in the fields than other people. Also, vegetables can have a particularly rough or non-rounded mouth feel that, for me at least, bothers the heck out of the top of my mouth. Even the smell of vegetables cooking can make me gag–ditto a couple of my kids.
Your Autistic child may have a very sensitive gag reflex and things that don’t taste right, or feel right, or smell right to them may cause them a gag response that may/may not lead to vomiting. They are absolutely not being difficult, ‘doing it on purpose’, or ‘just being picky’. Respect your child’s sensitivities–how would you like to gag or throw-up over your dinner?
North also tastes metals in vegetables, South can’t stand the smell of most of them and will gag. West can tolerate some vegetables, certainly more so than myself or North, and East–she likes just about all vegetables. North loves hot, spicy foods, but none of the rest of us do–he will have pepperoni on his no-sauce pizza (tomato products make him sick), while myself, South, and West only have cheese and very light sauce. East tends to like pineapple and Canadian bacon, for which we give her much razzing, as to the rest of us, pineapple is disgusting, sour, stringy, and in general, yag.
West likes apples, grapes, bananas, and peaches. North likes bananas, oranges and, when he was little, grapes so long as the ‘skins’ were peeled off . South will tolerate apples and likes bananas. East eats just about every fruit.
Not too long ago both myself and East discovered we were allergic to Gluten, which for me, is very bad news indeed as it further diminishes my already limited diet. I also believe my youngest, West, has the same thing and will be having him tested soon.
Puddings, macaroni and cheese with it’s rounded noodles/creamy sauce, and anything smooth are usually a good bed, at least for me and the kids.
Keep in mind I am forty-five years old at the time I write this and I can basically count on one hand the number of vegetables I can tolerate: Potatoes, Corn, Peas, and sometimes in small, non-chunky form–carrots (on occasion, refried beans, but only if completely smooth and lacking all lumps). Most vegetables that are dark green, have an irony/metal taste that I can’t stand in my mouth–leafy textures bother my upper mouth so that, when I feel it, I shudder and feel almost instantly sick. Broccoli, Cauliflower, etc…are like nails down a chalkboard to my mouth–that knobbly texture is gross and they stink. Asparagus–not a chance, ditto sprouts as their smell is enough to make me throw up. Green beans are disgusting in both taste and texture. Squashes tend to taste either bitter or have a fleshy/fibrous mouth feel that freaks me out. As for fruits, I like apples, peaches, and bananas–I will tolerate pears, and I’m allergic to strawberries. I despise berries both for their metallic taste, bumpiness, rubberyness, and overly sweet yet sour taste. I flat out do not eat fungi–it’s natural texture makes me feel like i’m eating brains.
A special note about water— Both myself and most of my kids can taste/smell stuff in water–and its not good. We filter water at home and avoid drinking it when away. South and to a lesser extent, West, are both very sensitive to this as am I.
Warning about Food Dyes— my youngest child West we have found to be EXTREMELY sensitive to food dyes, particularly RED, ORANGE and YELLOW varieties which can have him stimming and flat out going crazy very rapidly after eating foods that contain them. It is so bad his ‘imaginaries’ (as he calls the people/things only he can see when he’s had the dyes) come back and scare him–he loses most and sometimes all awareness that we are even there–it’s like he can’t see or hear us–and we believe he has hallucinations. His temperature spikes, skin flushes, and he begins to sweat. Twice we have seen him have small seizure like fits when he has eaten something we hadn’t even thought might have the dyes in it, but did. I don’t know how much this kind of thing affects other Autistic kids…but it certainly does mine. It’s so bad for him that he willingly forgoes any treats or foods (even cupcakes when offered by others) if he sees red, orange, or yellow colors on them–completely on his own as it frightens him when the ‘imaginaries’ come back. When the fit is over–and it can last anywhere from twenty minutes to hours–West will often throw up, and becomes quite exhausted–often falling into a ten hour sleep.
This is quite stressful on both West and his siblings as his distress triggers their anxiety/panic. We avoid these dyes at all costs now.
I will add more things as I think of them…but these are pretty much the basics, among my kids and I anyways, of what to watch out for when creating that home environment that your Autistic will feel comfortable in.
I realize that for many NT’s out there, this may seem daunting, difficult, or perhaps even make you angry that you should have to change your home, decor, home-lifestyle etc… and no, I do not think it is a good idea in this particular case to make the Autistic child ‘get used to things’ the way you already have it– This home environment is SO important–at least it has been so for the kids and I–without our sanctuary to come home too…I’m not sure any of us would have the strength to face the next day.