Environment and surroundings
This is a brief overview of the difficulties that a person with autism may face and how they are affected by their environment.
The environment can refer to a small space, a room or a whole building. Different environments can be adapted to make them less confusing or demanding.
Autism is a lifelong condition which can leave people feeling very isolated. Understanding other people and making sense of the world is particularly difficult. Everyday life can be confusing or frightening. Because autism is a spectrum condition, it can affect people in different ways and with varying degrees of difficulty.
Many people with autism have a sensory sensitivity. This can affect one or more of the 7 senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, vestibular – balance and movement, proprioception - body positioning in space). A person’s senses can be over developed (hypersensitive) or under developed (hyposensitive), both of which can have a dramatic effect on the way in which they react to their surroundings.
For example, a person who is hypersensitive to touch may find the texture of certain clothes or a light touch on their skin unbearable and distracting. In turn this causes anxiety or even physical pain. People who are hyposensitive on the other hand may not feel pain or extremes of temperature.
The following strategies are just a few ways that you may make the environment more autism friendly. Not every person with autism will need all the strategies listed here. Furthermore, attempting to modify every aspect of a specific environment would be unrealistic. By having an understanding of how different surroundings can affect your child, it will be possible to adapt things and make the world a little less alarming for them.
One of the best ways to support a child with autism is to create a well structured environment. This usually focuses on putting in place routines.
Creating routines in the daily life of a person with autism helps them to predict events and avoid anxiety. Most people with autism are much happier if they know what they are going to do on a given day or certain time of day. Sudden changes to routine should be avoided if possible as this will cause additional anxiety.
Structured routines may be supported by visual cues such as photographs, pictures, lists, timetables or calendars.
If a child’s timetable or daily schedule is made with a Velcro backing, they can remove cards as they go to show that tasks are being completed.
You may want to give individual tasks a structure, for example, when getting dressed your child might always have their clothes laid out in a particular order or follow a visual card showing pictures of the clothes in a specific order.
Using particular colours that people find calming on the walls can make the environment more autism friendly. Go for neutral or muted tones of blue, green, purple or pink (not yellow or white).
Avoid patterned wallpaper and keep soft furnishings plain. To avoid wallpaper stripping, use paint. If your child likes to lick surfaces, consider using organic or non-toxic paint.
Patterned floors can be very confusing to walk on and commonly increase anxiety.
It can help a child with autism to recognise the activities which take place in a particular room if you keep clutter to a minimum and have clearly defined spaces. For example a book shelf and desk can demark the space for quiet homework whilst a bean bag and toy box can show an area for play activities.
To help reduce clutter and distraction some parents find it useful to store their Childs belongings in large, clear plastic boxes. These can be stored away when not in use.
Rooms with lots of storage such as a kitchen may benefit from being labelled with pictures or words of what is stored inside. This will help your child to use the room with minimal support. Cupboards which contain hazardous materials should be clearly marked as ‘no go’ areas and locked when not in use.
Children with autism often have little or no awareness of danger so you will need to take special precautions with everyday objects e.g. radiators and plug sockets. Plan carefully to consider your child’s safety when they are in the home or out and about.
By putting in place specific precautions you will allow more freedom for your child and peace of mind for yourself.
Locks or high handles on cupboards will secure dangerous substances such as medicines or cleaning products. A loop and catch at the top of a cupboard may be easier than locks and keys.
Ideally, electrical sockets should be outside the bedroom or inside locked cupboards if possible. This will allow your child to freely use a music system or television. Plug locks can be installed to prevent fingers being poked into sockets or appliances being turned off (such as your fridge/freezer/computer etc.).
Radiators can be boxed in to reduce the risk of children being burnt and to reduce the amount of noise made if they are hit.
Car seats – It is the law that all children should use the correct restraint until they are 12 years old or 135cms tall (whichever they reach first). After this an adult seatbelt must be used. If your child refuses to wear a seatbelt or frequently ‘escapes’ you may want to consider installing a disabled persons seat belt or child restraints.
Sometimes children with autism enjoy the sound of hitting glass. To reduce the danger of harm, you could replace with safety glass or cover with plastic to strengthen it.
Harsh lighting or fluorescent bulbs can really hurt the eyes of a child with autism. Many say that they can see these lights flickering or hear them ‘hum’. This can be very distracting or distressing. Use soft lighting where possible. Dimmer switches allow the light levels to be adjusted.
It is best to avoid using slatted blinds, particularly vertical ones as these are distracting and can encourage obsessional behaviour such as moving their head to create a flickering effect with the sunshine.
If your child frequently pulls on curtain rails, you could hold curtains or black-out blinds up with Velcro.
Furnishings can help to reduce the noise levels in your home. For example carpet is quieter than laminated floor.
Full curtains reduce noise better than blinds. Soft sofa’s and cushions also help to reduce noise within the home.
Sound deadening furnishings can also help to create a feeling of cosiness and safety.
Subtle scents and smells that you may not even notice can be overwhelming for some children with autism. This can range from certain cooking smells to perfume, deodorant and washing powder residue on clothes. You could try to keep these overpowering smells to a minimum or use a background fragrance to block the uncomfortable smells.
It is useful to adjust the temperature of your water so that it is not too hot, especially if your child enjoys turning taps on/off. This will prevent scalds. If your child loves water, they may go to great lengths to access it. Consider having the toilet cistern hidden behind a wall or a lock for the toilet seat for when not in use.
Many children with autism find running or playing in the garden is a great way to relieve stress. Some parents find it helpful to have a trampoline or punch bag in the garden to meet their child’s sensory needs.
If your child likes to dig, it is a good idea to create an area purely for this activity or provide a sandpit. Make it clear where your child is allowed to dig. The use of photo cue cards and low level cane/string can cheaply mark out areas that you don’t mind being turned into a mud bath!
As many autistic children have little awareness of danger, they may run out of the house or school or run away when they are out in the community.
Some parents buy equipment to warn them when their child has run away. It is a good idea for your child to wear an ID bracelet with emergency contact details or to carry an autism information card to use if they become separated from their family or support staff.
Some parents apply for a Blue Badge which allows parking near to shops etc. You can apply for this here www.gov.uk/apply-blue-badge
Some parents have created a sensory room for their child. This is a quiet, distraction free room for their child to withdraw to when needed. Some of the equipment that is useful to have in a sensory room is listed below:
- Bubble tubes
- Soothing music
- Bean bags
- Fibre optics
- Dark den/tent
- Sensory fiddle toys
If you don’t have the space or money for a sensory room, try creating a sensory area or den. Use a pop up tent or screen a corner of the room off (possibly hang a dark piece of fabric from the ceiling). Some of the items listed above can then be placed in this area.
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