When we think of physical impairments and disabilities, we assume that the home environment needs to be altered to remove handicaps for daily living. The same is true for neurodivergences like autism.
You will be able to self-regulate best when your home environment supports the sensory input you need for balance. That’s why the first section of your brain’s owner’s manual is to Make Yourself at Home.
I’ve written before about sensory diets, and I will post a fuller guide to an Autism Accessible Home soon. But for the purposes of getting a handle on your brain’s needs, here are the most important areas to address to give yourself (and/or your family members) the best opportunities for self-regulation:
- Movement. Whether you choose to have an over-the-door swing, a room swing, a yard swing, a pull-up bar, a Swedish ladder, an old-fashioned water bed, a rocking chair, an exercise ball, a balance board, or any combination of those, you will need to fill your body’s need for soothing movements in order to allow the parts of your brain to build the best connections and to coordinate well.
- Lighting. You’ll need to find the lighting levels you prefer for different needs (exciting or relaxing) and be able to adjust them according to the time of day and your needs. Here are some ways to regulate lighting: Lamps, warm spectrum or full-spectrum light bulbs, dimmer switches, color and brightness adjustable LED rope lights, fairy (Christmas) lights, photo lamp kits, bubble lamps, lava lamps, candles, glow sticks, glow in the dark paint, fiber optic lamps, sunglasses, rose colored glasses, stained glass, sheers, blackout curtains.
- Deep Pressure. This type of pressure gives your joints and fascia input that helps you feel centered and safe. Here are some of the ways to get the deep pressure you need: weighted blankets, heavy backpacks, weighted lap pads, weighted vests, sitting between couch cushions, bean bag chairs, jumping into bean bags or crash pads, hugs, therapeutic deep pressure such as shoulder and joint compressions, trampolines, exercise bands, having a dog or cat on your legs or lap, holding books on your lap, heavy quilts or blankets or pillows over legs or feet, body socks, lying on your belly, doing push ups, leg lifts, and other calisthenics, pushing yourself around on a floor scooter, soaking in a deep bath, swimming.
- Touch. Tactile input can help us to learn a lot about our environment, but it can also be very overwhelming. Soft fabrics, especially natural fabrics, are often more pleasant for autistics to touch. I recommend removing tags as soon as you have made sure that new clothing fits well and that you’ll keep it. For the home, sheepskin rugs, silk pillow covers, velvet or velour pillow covers, and corduroy items can add textural input without costing too much. It’s very important that autistic people be allowed truly designated personal space where they can let down their guard and focus all of their attention without unpredictable touch. (More on attention in Thursday’s post.) Some autistic people seek touch, and some largely avoid it. Self-regulation is the goal, whichever direction one’s preferences lie, so safe, predictable spaces are important. If separate rooms aren’t an option, cubby-like spaces such as indoor tents, the space under loft beds, and wingback chairs can give the needed cocoons that regulate touch.
- Sound. It’s important not to send sound-sensitive people into shutdown or meltdown modes by overwhelming them with loud, sudden, or annoying sound. Several members of my autistic family are sound sensitive. We have a central rack of noise-cancelling earmuffs in our house, and each of us uses them at least once a week. I also like to institute a quiet classical music part of each day where other background noise is muted or minimized. White noise such as recordings of the ocean can also be soothing, especially at night. If you cannot control the ambient noise level in your home, you can lower your exposure to it using earmuffs and white noise or quiet, relaxing music.
- Safety. Along with the other areas, a sense of safety is vital for self-regulation. This can be as simple as making sure that you have locking doors and as complex as learning to de-escalate emotional responses to lower the tension in relationships. Safety also requires that bodily and emotional boundaries are in place and respected by everyone in the household. Some of the ways we stay safe are with deadbolts on our outside doors to prevent intrusions and eloping, combination locks on our backyard gates to prevent eloping (we have a nonverbal 4 year old who has not developed a sense of danger yet and who elopes). We keep the keys to the deadbolts out of reach of the doors, high up on the walls, and accessible to the adults and oldest child in the house in case of emergencies. We teach bodily and relational boundaries from infancy, and we make sure that everyone in the family knows that surprises are ok, but secrets are not ok. We have also made a point to visit our neighbors and give them contact cards with the photo of our son who elopes, so that we’re not the only family looking out for him just in case he elopes. The cards read AUTISM ALERT and include his photo and name, our names and phones and locations, and, “If you find me wandering…” instructions. If you’re an adult with autism, safety can also include having someone to contact every day via text or private message or phone call or in person, so that you have someone looking out for you, too.
I will go into more detail and provide a customizable checklist in my free Autism Accessible Home guide, coming soon to this site. In the meantime, share in comments how you arrange your home to help regulate your sensory needs.
Make sure to follow this blog to see the entire series on the Autistic Brain Owner’s Manual. Follow my Facebook page for live videos demonstrating how I put these tips into practice in our autistic family life.