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 with autism or Asperger syndrome.
Environment and surroundings: introduction
This is an introduction to the difficulties that people with autism face, how they are affected by their environment, and how different environments can be adapted to make them less confusing or challenging.
Autism is a serious, lifelong condition. People with autism can find it incredibly hard to make sense of the world. Everyday life can be confusing, meaningless or even frightening. Understanding and communicating with other people is particularly difficult, which can leave people very isolated.
People with autism have difficulties with social interaction, social communication and social imagination sometimes known as the triad of impairments. Because autism is a spectrum condition, it affects every person in a different way and people will experience different degrees of difficulty.
Many people with autism have sensory sensitivity. 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 impact on how people experience, and cope with, different environments.
For example, a person 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. (For further information on sensory sensitivity, see The sensory world of the autistic spectrum on www.autism.org.uk/15691.)
This section contains a number of different strategies for making enivronment and surroundings more autism-friendly. Not every person with autism will need all the strategies covered here, and attempting to modify every aspect of a particular environment would be unrealistic. However, understanding how different environments may affect different people with autism can help to make the world a more accessible place for them.
Creating a well structured environment
One of the most effective ways of helping a person with autism to cope with the difficulties they may experience is to create a well-structured and supportive environment. This need not involve physically changing the environment you may perhaps only make minor changes but will focus on putting in place a routine and some useful support strategies for the person with autism.
Our schools and adult services use the principles of SPELL and TEACCH. The following sections explain how you can apply these principles yourself, for example at home, in school or at an adult service.
SPELL stands for Structure, Positive, Empathy, Low arousal and Links. The SPELL framework recognises the unique needs of each person with autism and emphasises that all planning and interventions should be organised with these needs in mind.
The main reason for incorporating structure into the daily life of a person with autism is to help them to predict events and avoid anxiety many people with autism are happier if they know what they are going to do on a given day.
Sudden changes to a person's daily routine need to be avoided as far as possible: cancelling activities without prior warning, and changes to staffing or teaching methods can all increase anxiety.
A positive approach means encouraging people with autism, wherever possible, to develop their skills by giving them opportunities to try new activities in a supportive and caring environment. If they can undertake tasks that can realistically be accomplished, this will help to increase their self-esteem and self-confidence.
This may mean structuring their day so that they have time to reflect on their achievements while doing something they enjoy.
This is to do with how you as a parent, carer or professional understand how a person with autism experiences the world, and also how they can be helped to overcome their difficulties.
Many people with autism can be very sensitive to noise, light, heat or smells. Therefore, it is important that lessons and activities are carried out in a calm environment, free as far as possible from disruption or noise which may make them feel anxious.
It's possible that your tone of voice or body language can cause anxiety, too. Speaking calmly and using slower body movements will help.
Links refers to good communication between parents and carers, and teachers and other professionals. This can help to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding or confusion, and to promote learning as everyone involved with the person follows the same, consistent approaches.
The SPELL framework can be used by anyone with autism. For further information about SPELL, visit www.autism.org.uk/spell SPELL is complimentary to other approaches, notably TEACCH.
The TEACCH programme was devised in America by Division TEACCH in North Carolina. It stands for Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication handicapped CHildren. TEACCH aims to provide a structured environment in which a person with autism can be more independent in a safe and calm setting. Every activity has a clear start, middle and end and is supported by the use of words, pictures, symbols or visual aids.
A structured environment
You can create an undistracting 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 with autism 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 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. For more information on using visual supports, contact our Autism Helpline.
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.
For details of companies which sell any of the products mentioned in this section, see the 'Useful products and resources' section below.
Some people with autism 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.
By law all children up to three years of age have to wear the correct child seat. From three years up to the age of 12, or up to a height of 135cm (4'5") tall, children have to sit in the correct child restraint or booster seat when travelling in a car, van or any other vehicle where seat belts are fitted. If your child refuses to wear a seatbelt 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 further details, visit the Department for Transport website at www.dft.gov.uk/think
We are often asked for details of companies that sell large pushchairs. Some companies which sell these are listed in the 'Useful products and resources' section.
Some people with autism 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 information 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. For more information, see our information sheet Blue Badge scheme: a guide for parents and carers at www.autism.org.uk/a-z
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.
Fluorescent or harsh lighting can hurt the eyes of a person with autism. 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.
Children and adults with autism 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 information sheet Shopping: strategies to help, at www.autism.org.uk/a-z or request a copy from our Autism Helpline.
People with autism can become overwhelmed by subtle smells that you may not even notice, such as someones 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.
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 with autism 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.
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.
Our Autism Helpline often receives calls about people with autism who have an obsession with water. Many people with autism 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 so that hands don't go wandering in places where you don't want them to!
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 scald themself. This also allows the person to have more independence.
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 including:
- 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 can be useful outlets for people with autism: some 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 this booklet has 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
Alarms, tags and cards
- Family Safe Plus+
Community Inspired Ltd
First Floor, Stag House
23-27 London Road
Tel: 0870 062 4919
This company sells safety tags that you can put on your child with emergency contact details; you can also register your family’s and your child’s details with the company and these can be accessed and used in an emergency.
- Easylink Electronics
Tel: 01536 264 869
Sells personal alarms, sensor mats and door buzzers
- The National Autistic Society – autism information cards
Central Books Ltd
99 Wallis Road
London E9 5LN
Tel: 0845 458 9911
Fax: 0845 458 9912
We sell a number of cards that explain what autism is. Children and adults with autism can carry these cards and use them to explain their condition, should they need to.
The Autism Alert Card (NAS code 565; cost £2.50), available in a plastic wallet, is designed for people to carry at all times. It includes space for emergency contact details and a leaflet explaining autism spectrum disorders.
This person has autism (NAS code 526) and This person has Asperger syndrome (NAS code 527) are all business card size and have brief descriptions of autism spectrum disorders. They each come in a pack of 50 and cost £2.00 + p&p.
Safety - harnesses
Organic and non-toxic paints
Bedroom furniture and equipment
- ABACA Ltd
Unit 1, Ty Croes Business Park
Carmarthenshire SA18 3RZ
Tel: 01269 598 491
Sells organic, chemical-free and non-toxic mattresses. They are produced using materials created by traditional farming methods, avoiding the use of highly toxic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
St Albans Road West
Hertfordshire AL10 0TF
Tel: 0800 064 3545
Sells wall and door protectors
- Link Design Ltd
Ludlow SY8 2DY
Tel: 01584 877 167
Sells a range of beds, waterproof bed bases, mattresses and padded wall and floor mats.
For contact details, see page above.
Sells a weighted blanket.
For contact details, see page above.
Sells bedside protection pads, beds and mattresses.
- Tough Furniture Ltd
Craven Arms Business Park
Shropshire SY7 8NR
Tel: 01588 674 340
Furniture to suit the needs of environments where challenging behaviour is an issue
- Disabled Living Foundation
380-384 Harrow Road
London W9 2HU
Helpline: 0845 130 9177 (Mon-Fri 10am-4pm)
The Disabled Living Foundation has free information booklets that provide advice on a wide range of topics. They include information on features to look for when choosing items, but contain no specific product or supplier information.
- Link Design Ltd
For contact details, see page above.
Sells waterproof, all foam furniture, chairs, sofas, bedside cabinets, wardrobes, chests of drawers and polycarbonate-fronted cabinets.
For contact details, see page above.
Sells a range of furniture.
- Tough Furniture Ltd
For contact details, see page above.
- KC Sleepsuits
Tel: 01706 521 330
This company sells sleepsuits for children and adults.
- NHS Purchasing
Has details of Shepherdess Care Wear, who specialise in the design, manufacture and supply of quality bibs for adults, babies and children
Tel: 01538 381 430
Sells clothes adapted for children and adults with disabilities, including swimwear and bibs.
Trampolines and swings
(Contact details as above)
For contact details, see above.
Sells trampolines and swings (swings suitable for both adults and children).
- TFH Special Needs
5-7 Severnside Business Park
Stourport on Severn
Worcestershire DY13 9HT
Tel: 01299 827 820
Sells a range of special needs toys.
Useful information sheets
Please contact our Autism Helpline for free copies of these information sheets. You can also find them on our website here:
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 updated: April 2013
Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/18450