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. 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.

Autism and sensory sensitivity 

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 have an 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. Find out more about sensory sensitivity at www.autism.org.uk/15691

Here we talk about a number of different strategies for making environment 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

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. 

  • Structure. 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.
  • Positive. 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.
  • Empathy. 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.
  • Low arousal. 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. 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 and is complementary to other approaches, notably TEACCH. For more, visit www.autism.org.uk/spell  

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. For more, visit www.autism.org.uk/teacch

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 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, see www.autism.org.uk/visualsupports

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.

Safety

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.

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

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.

Running away

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, see our Blue Badge Scheme information.

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 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.

Noise

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 Shopping: strategies to help.

Smells

People with autism 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 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.

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 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 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 with autism. 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


Locks

NicheLocks.com
Tel: 01922 473 199
Email: sales@NicheLocks.com
Website: www.nichelocks.com

Fledglings
Tel: 0845 458 1124
Email: enquiries@fledglings.org.uk
Website: www.fledglings.org.uk

Plug Lock
Tel: 01535 646 071
Email: info@pluglock.co.uk
Website: www.pluglock.co.uk


Alarms, tags and cards

Family Safe Plus+
Tel: 0870 062 4919
Email: info@familysafeplus.co.uk
Websites: www.familysafeplus.co.uk
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
Email: sales@easylinkuk.co.uk
Website: www.easylinkuk.co.uk 
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
Email: nas@centralbooks.com 
Website: www.autism.org.uk/autismalertcard
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.

 


Safety harnesses

Crelling Harnesses
Tel: 01253 852 298
Email: info@crelling.com
Website: www.crelling.com 
Sells safety harnesses for cars and buses

G & S Smirthwaite Ltd
Tel: 01626 835 552
Email: info@smirthwaite.co.uk
Website: www.smirthwaite.co.uk


Pushchairs

Delichon Ltd
Tel: 01725 519 405
Email: info@delichon.co.uk
Website: www.delichon.co.uk

Fledglings
Tel: 0845 458 1124
Email: enquiries@fledglings.org.uk
Website: www.fledglings.org.uk

Kidsense
Tel: 07899 943613
Email: info@kidsense.co.uk 
Website: www.kidsense.co.uk

Special Needs Pushchairs
Tel: 01363 881 110
Email: sales@specialneedspushchairs.co.uk 
Website: www.specialneedspushchairs.co.uk

Tendercare
Tel: 01903 726 161
Email: info@tendercareltd.com
Website: www.tendercareltd.com


Sensory equipment

Rompa
Tel: 0845 230 1177
Email: customer.service@rompa.com
Website: www.rompa.com

SensoryPlus
Tel: 0800 212 709
Email: info@sensoryplus.co.uk
Website: www.sensoryplus.co.uk

SpaceKraft Ltd
Tel: 01274 581 007
Email: enquiries@spacekraft.co.uk
Website: www.spacekraft.co.uk

TFH Special Needs Toys
Tel: 01299 827 820
Email: mse@tfhuk.com
Website: www.SpecialNeedsToys.com


Organic and non-toxic paints 

 

Auro
Tel: 01452 772 020
Email: sales@auroorganic.co.uk 
Web: www.auro.co.uk

Ecomerchant Ltd (Livos)
Tel: 0845 603 5688
Email: info@ecomerchant.co.uk 
Website: www.ecomerchant.co.uk

Friends of the Earth
Tel: 020 7490 1555
Email: info@foe.co.uk
Website: www.foe.co.uk

Nutshell Natural Paints
Tel: 01392 823760
Email: enquiries@nutshellpaints.co.uk 
Website: www.nutshellpaints.com


Bedroom furniture and equipment

ABACA Ltd
Tel: 01269 598 491
Email: enquiry@abacaorganic.co.uk
Website: www.abacaorganic.co.uk
Sells organic and non-toxic mattresses.

Intrad
Tel: 01707 266726
Email: sales@intrad.com
Website: www.intrad.com
Sells wall and door protectors

Kinderkey Healthcare
Tel: 01978 820 714
Website: www.kinderkeyinternational.co.uk
Sells a range of inclusive products, including mattresses,and cots for children with disabilities.

Kirton
Tel. 0800 212 709
Email: info@kirtonhealthcare.co.uk
Website: www.kirton-healthcare.co.uk

Link Design Ltd
Tel: 01584 877 167
Email: info@linkdesign.co.uk
Website: www.linkdesign.co.uk
Sells a range of beds, waterproof bed bases, mattresses and padded wall and floor mats.

Rompa
Tel: 0845 230 1177
Email: customer.service@rompa.com
Website: www.rompa.com

Safespaces
Tel: 01706 816 274
Email: enquiries@safespaces.co.uk
Website: www.safespaces.co.uk
Safe rooms and sleep systems for anyone who may be unsafe in an ordinary bed.

SensoryPlus
Tel: 0800 212 709
Email: info@sensoryplus.co.uk
Website: www.sensoryplus.co.uk

Tough Furniture Ltd
Tel: 01588 674 340
Email: sales@toughfurniture.com
Website: www.toughfurniture.com
Furniture to suit the needs of environments where challenging behaviour is an issue


Clothing

Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence (ERIC)
Tel: 0117 301 2100
Email: sales@eric.org.uk
Website: www.eric.org.uk/Shop
Charity which sells a range of children’s continence products, including bedding.

Fledglings
Tel: 0845 458 1124
Email: enquiries@fledglings.org.uk
Website: www.fledglings.org.uk
Sells bibs, aprons, t-shirts, underwear, nightwear, socks, shoe laces, swimwear and wheelchair clothing.

KC Sleepsuits
Tel: 01706 521 330
Website: www.kcsleepsuits.co.uk
This company sells sleepsuits for children and adults.

NHS Purchasing
Website: www.nhspurchasing.com
Has details of Shepherdess Care Wear, who specialise in the design, manufacture and supply of quality bibs for adults, babies and children

Racketys
Tel: 01538 381 430
Email: info@racketys.com
Website: www.racketys.com
Sells clothes adapted for children and adults with disabilities, including swimwear and bibs.


Trampolines and swings

Fledglings
Tel: 0845 458 1124
Email: enquiries@fledglings.org.uk
Website: www.fledglings.org.uk

Rompa
Tel: 0845 230 1177
Email: customer.service@rompa.com
Website: www.rompa.com

TFH Special Needs
Tel: 01299 827 820
Email: info@tfhuk.com
Website: www.specialneedstoys.com
Sells a range of special needs toys.


General

 

Disabled Living Foundation
Helpline: 0300 999 0004
Email: helpline@dlf.org.uk
Website: www.dlf.org.uk
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
Tel: 01584 877 167
Email: info@linkdesign.co.uk
Website: www.linkdesign.co.uk
Sells waterproof, all foam furniture, chairs, sofas, bedside cabinets, wardrobes, chests of drawers and polycarbonate-fronted cabinets.

Rompa
Tel: 0845 230 1177
Email: customer.service@rompa.com
Website: www.rompa.com
Sells a range of furniture

Tough Furniture Ltd
Tel: 01588 674 340
Email: sales@toughfurniture.com
Website: www.toughfurniture.com
Furniture to suit the needs of environments where challenging behaviour is an issue

 


More information from the NAS

 

You can contact our Autism Helpline for free printed copies of the above.


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 updated: January 2014


Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/18450