6 Realistic Tips for Making Your Home Autism-Friendly

Relaxed with Headphones. Getty Images

 For many people with autism, the world is a minefield.  School, work, playgrounds, social and cultural events, even birthday parties are loaded with possibilities for sensory overload, bullying, frustration, confusion, or just plain unpleasantness. 

That's because many people on the autism spectrum are unusually sensitive to any kind of sensory "assault" -- ranging from loud noises to bright lights and crowds.

  They're also more likely than typical peers to find changes in routine, new foods, new people, and new settings to be overwhelming or upsetting.  Even a trip to the grocery store can be extraordinarily difficult.

Given the difficulties of daily life for a person on the autism spectrum, it makes sense that home should be, at least some of the time, a real sanctuary.  Unfortunately, though, that's not always possible or practical.  Here are just a few of the issues standing in the way:

  • Siblings and parents also have needs, and may choose to invite friends, make noise, select new foods, or otherwise change up and complicate home life.
  • Many of the therapies recommended for children with autism are home-based, meaning that after hours in school (with school-based therapies tossed in), children may return home to yet more hours of therapy provided by parents and/or mobile therapists.
  • Family life is not always predictable or calm.  Emergencies and life-changing events often mean at least a brief period of turmoil.  A sibling is injured, a grandparent gets sick -- and things just have to change.

    Given the reality that no real-world home is going to be a perfectly calm oasis in a world of strife, what can families do to promote a relaxed experience for a family member with autism?  Here are some real-world recommendations:

    1. Provide a realistic schedule that you and your autistic family member can expect to follow, at least most of the time.  That may be as simple as "Come home, change clothes, watch TV for one hour, eat dinner, take a shower, do homework, go to bed."  Put the schedule into a visual format, and be sure that everyone understands what's expected.  This type of schedule is usually just as appropriate for siblings as for youngsters on the autism spectrum.
    1. Give your child space and time to relax alone.  For many people with (and without!) autism, down time and alone time are absolutely essential.
    2. Keep preferred foods in the house, so that your autistic family member can expect to eat at least one item he or she actively enjoys.  That doesn't mean "never eat anything new," but it does mean that your autistic family member has something to eat that he or she likes.
    3. Scout out and remove smells, sounds, and lights that are really bothersome.  Yes, you need to use cleaning supplies -- but you may be able to find some with minimal odors.  Yes, your other children can listen to music -- but they may be able to use headphones.  Yes, you need light in your home -- but fluorescent lights can be really uncomfortable for someone with sensory challenges.
    4. Limit at-home therapies to what's really useful, necessary, and relatively pleasant for your child.  No child should come home in a state of dread, knowing that hours of unpleasant therapy lie in store!  Often, it's possible for parents and therapists to provide play-based therapies or relaxing sensory or occupational therapies in the home.  These types of therapies are most likely to be fun for the child -- and help to build rather than strain family ties.
    1. Keep a weather eye out for signs of stress in your autistic family member.  They may not be able to communicate exactly what's bothering them, so you may need to do a little detective work to determine that, for example, the smell of cabbage cooking is driving them nuts, or their younger sister's constantly dinging cell phone is making them crazy.  Once you've zeroed in on a problem, you can brainstorm simple solutions (skip the cabbage, put the phone on mute).

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