Here we give guidance on changes that can be made to a space, be it one room or a whole building, that will benefit children and adults on the autism spectrum. This is an introduction to the difficulties that autistic people face, how they are affected by their environment, and how different environments can be adapted to make them less confusing or challenging.

Autism and sensory sensitivity 

Many people on the autism spectrum have sensory issues. This can affect one or more of the five senses sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. A person's senses can be over-developed (hypersensitive) or under-developed (hyposensitive). Both can have an impact on how people experience, and cope with, different environments.

For example, people with autism may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. People who are hyposensitive, meanwhile, may not feel pain or extremes of temperature.

Here we talk about a number of different strategies which could be used to make an environment and surroundings more autism-friendly and accessible.

Creating a well-structured, supportive environment

This need not involve physically changing the environment. You may only make minor changes but focus on putting in place a routine and some useful support strategies for the person such as low arousal techniques.

Our schools and adult services use the principles of SPELL and TEACCH and you can apply these principles yourself, for example at home, in school or at an adult service.

A structured environment

You can create a non-distracting and functional area by thinking about the physical structure of a particular room or environment. Bookshelves, walls, furniture, soft furnishings and different flooring can all be used to create a calm, structured environment, and to help a person with autism recognise which activities typically take place in a particular room.

For example, a kitchen will usually have fitted cupboards and fixtures as standard, helping to identify it, but all areas of the kitchen could also be labelled with words and/or symbols to assist a person with autism to use the room and the equipment with minimal support. Cupboards which contain food or hazardous materials could be locked when not in use.

Using particular colours that people find calming on the walls, or thick carpeting or double glazing to minimise distracting sounds, are other ways of making an environment more autism-friendly. Visit our section for architects to read about how architects have consulted people with autism and the professionals who work with them, and used this information to design autism-friendly buildings.

Scheduling and routines

A schedule allows people on the autism spectrum to have ownership of their daily or weekly timetable.

In an educational setting, children and young people can have individual timetables where each lesson has its own card featuring pictures, words or both - which the student can place by their workstation in the classroom or carry around with them. They will then have a visual order of events which they can refer to during the day for reassurance. If the timetable is made with a Velcro backing, students can remove all the cards at the end of the day to signify that the timetable for that particular day has finished and that it is time to go home.

The same principle of using visual supports can be used in lessons to illustrate the different tasks that the student has to complete or, indeed, at home to show what activities will be taking place during the evening.

You can also make sure that individual tasks and activities have a routine or structure. For example, when a person with autism gets dressed in the mornings their clothes could always be laid out from left to right in the order that they should be put on.

Modifying the environment

Here, we talk in more detail about some environmental modifications that can benefit people with autism. Lots of them are small, practical modifications that you can make in your own home.

Safety

Some people on the autism spectrum have little or no awareness of danger, which may mean you need to take special precautions with everyday objects, such as radiators and electrical sockets, and also consider carefully your child's safety when they are in the home or out and about.

Locks or high handles on cupboards will help to secure substances that could be dangerous, such as medicines or cleaning products, and bring peace of mind: they allow more freedom, not less. High handles or a loop and catch at the top of cupboards may be a little easier - you wont have to worry about keys and they can be more discreet.

Electrical sockets should, ideally, be located outside the bedroom, inside locked cupboards if possible, so that people with autism can use music systems, televisions, etc freely and safely. A plug lock can also be installed to prevent anyone putting their fingers in plug sockets or switching off appliances such as fridges, freezers and computers.

One parent who contacted our Helpline suggested that electrical equipment such as televisions and remote controls could be kept inside a cabinet with a plastic front. This can be particularly helpful if your child likes to mess around with the equipment: flicking between channels, or rewinding or fast forwarding.

Radiators can be boxed in to eliminate the risk of people getting burnt and to reduce the amount of noise generated if they are hit.

The law requires all children travelling in cars to use the correct child restraint until they are either 135 cm in height or the age of 12 (which ever they reach first). After this they must use an adult seat belt. If your child refuses to wear a seat belt or continually escapes from it, you may have to consider getting a disabled person's seat belt or child restraints designed to meet your child's needs. The only way a child can be exempt from wearing a child restraint or seat belt is if a doctor issues an exemption certificate on medical grounds. For more details, see www.gov.uk/child-car-seats-the-rules

Running away

Some people on the autism spectrum may run out of their house, school or service, or run away when out in the community. Parents and carers can use equipment to warn them when their child has run away, or sign up to safety schemes which help to reunite children and young people with their families. People with autism can carry an Autism Alert Card with emergency contact details, or wear an identity bracelet to use if they become separated from their family or support staff.

Some families apply for a Blue Badge, which allows people to use parking spaces close to shops and other amenities.

Windows

Our Autism Helpline sometimes receives enquiries about people with autism who enjoy the sound of hitting, or breaking, glass. To reduce the possibility of them causing harm to themselves, ordinary glass can be replaced by strengthened safety glass or covered with plastic.

Lighting

Fluorescent or harsh lighting can hurt the eyes of a person on the autism spectrum. Many say that they can see these types of lights flickering or hear them hum, which can be very distracting, possibly even painful. Due to these difficulties, it is best to use soft lighting where possible. Adjustable lighting in some rooms can be calming.

It has been suggested that it is best to avoid using slatted blinds, particularly vertical ones, as these are distracting and may become the focus of obsessional behaviour, such as moving the head to create flickering sunlight. You may choose to use curtains, including blackout curtains, instead. If the person with autism has a tendency to pull on curtain rails, curtains can be held up with Velcro. 

Plastic stick-on covering can also be placed on windows, giving privacy while letting some light in. This product should be available from DIY stores.

Noise

Children and adults on the autism spectrum may find it difficult to filter out noises that other people can simply block out or ignore.

Furnishing can help to reduce noise levels in your home. For example, carpet or soft flooring is quieter than laminated flooring which can be noisy to walk or play on. These sound-deadening furnishings can also create a feeling of cosiness and safety.

For suggestions on how to overcome light and sound processing difficulties outside the home, see our page about shopping.

Smells

People on the autism spectrum can become overwhelmed by subtle smells that you may not even notice, such as someone's deodorant or perfume, or the smells of fabrics, etc. Clements and Zarkowska (2000) suggest using a background fragrance to block the intrusion of uncontrollable smells.

Colour

It is generally accepted that low arousal colours such as cream (not yellow or white) should be used for walls and patterned wallpaper should be avoided. Soft furnishings might also be kept fairly plain. Single-colour, painted walls can also eliminate the possibility of unplanned wallpaper stripping. Some parents and carers have asked our Autism Helpline about organic and non-toxic paints. These can be particularly appropriate for people with autism who lick surfaces.

Patterned floors can be confusing to walk across and may increase anxiety. Some people with autism may become fixated when looking at flooring.

Room layout and design

Some people on the autism spectrum can find it helpful if furniture is placed at the sides of a room and the central space is kept clear. Using colours that distinguish the walls, floors and furniture makes rooms easier to navigate.

It can be useful to keep children's belongings in big, clear plastic boxes so that they can be easily stored away when not in use: the room will then be less cluttered and your child less likely to be distracted. Storing boxes on high shelves can also teach younger children the importance of communication, such as the need to ask for help to return the boxes to their places.

Bedrooms

Some parents have contacted our Autism Helpline about bedroom equipment such as bed frames and mattresses that are resistant to damage. A company called Kirton sells washable, extra-strength bedding, virtually indestructible mattresses and bed frames that can be fixed to the floor.

ERIC (Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence) sells a range of water-resistant, washable but breathable bedding protection. This includes duvets, pillows, mattress covers, sleeping bag liners and absorbent bed pads. A charity called Fledglings also sells a variety of continence products, specialist beds and chairs. Meanwhile, Safespaces sells removable padding that can be placed on floors or walls to minimise injury.

Bathrooms

Our Autism Helpline often receives calls about people on the autism spectrum who have an obsession with water. Many people will go to the bathroom to access it. It may be helpful to have the toilet cistern hidden behind a wall and a lock for the toilet seat.

It is also helpful to adjust your water temperature so that it is not too hot, especially if you know a person with autism who enjoys turning the taps on and off, and could potentially be scalded. This also allows the person to have more independence.

Sensory rooms

Some parents have created a sensory room for their child to retreat to when necessary. A sensory room is a distraction-free area combined with a selection of different equipment which can include:

  • projection equipment
  • fibre optics
  • bubble tubes
  • mirror balls
  • pinspot and colour wheel
  • sound system to produce music
  • bean bags.

If you don't have the money or the space to have a sensory room, try creating a sensory corner with a seat that is screened off from the room by hanging a long sheet of dark fabric from the ceiling. A few of the items listed above could be brought into this little corner.

Godwin Emmons and McKendry Anderson (2005) suggested creating a sensory bag or sensory basket, which could contain a selection of sensory items that can travel around with the child or adult, and possibly help them to manage any stress, anxiety or sensory overload. They suggest that some or all of the following could be kept in the sensory bag:

  • stress balls
  • a whistle with the pea removed for hard blowing
  • unbreakable mirror - for the person with autism to be able to see their emotions
  • two footprints that can be put on the floor for jumping or stomping
  • scented lotions.

Gardens

Gardens can be useful outlets for people on the autism spectrum. Some people find running around in the garden an effective way of relieving stress in a safe environment.

Some parents also have a trampoline or a punch bag in the garden. These types of equipment do not have to be restricted to the garden. It can be useful to create a space to exercise inside the home as well.

We hope that we have given you some helpful strategies which you can use to make your environment autism-friendly. Every person with autism is different, and will be affected by their environment in different ways. You may be a parent or carer who is able to make small changes to your home to better meet your child's particular sensory needs, or a professional who wants to make a space a bit more autism-friendly in general. Anyone can make some basic adjustments - such as putting in place a routine and creating a low arousal environment - which will be of great benefit to people with autism.

Autism-friendly environments: useful products and resources

You can search for useful product suppliers in our Autism Services Directory. Products include locks, alarms/tags, safety harnesses, sensory equipment, furniture and clothing. You may also want to search the internet for special needs pushchairs and organic/non-toxic paints.

References

Clements, J. and Zarkowska, E. (2000). Behavioural concerns and autistic spectrum disorders: explanations and strategies for change. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Godwin Emmons, P. and McKendry Anderson, L. (2005). Understanding sensory dysfunction: learning, development and sensory dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, learning disabilities and bipolar disorder. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Wilkes, K. (2005). The sensory world of the autistic spectrum: a greater understanding. London: The National Autistic Society.

 

Last reviewed: June 2017


Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/environment