Autism Spectrum Sensory Needs
Autism Spectrum Disorder often encompasses some hyper- or hypo-reactivity to or atypical engagement with sensory input.
People who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have different sensory needs than those who do not have ASD. Some people with ASD need more sensory input than others, while others need less.
People with ASD may also respond differently to different types of sensory input. For example, some people with ASD might love the feeling of deep pressure, while others might find it overwhelming.
It is important to understand and accommodate for a person’s sensory needs, as they can have a big impact on that person’s day-to-day life. For example, a person with ASD who needs a lot of sensory input may struggle in an environment that is not very stimulating, such as a classroom or office. On the other hand, a person who needs less sensory input may feel overwhelmed by a stimulating environment.
There are many different ways to provide a person with ASD with the sensory input they need. Some people need very specific types of sensory input, while others are more flexible. Some common sensory needs and ways to accommodate for them are listed below.
This can manifest in certain notable responses:
- Fascination with particular lighting, sounds, or movement
- Seeming unawareness to pain or temperature
- Distress at particular noises or textures
- Smelling or touching objects or people an excessive amount
The Purpose of an Autism Sensory Room
Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD) have difficulty with sensory integration. This means that they have difficulty processing and integrating sensory information from their environment.
For example, a child with sensory integration difficulties may be overwhelmed by loud noises or bright lights. They may find it difficult to play with certain types of sensory toys, or to participate in sensory activities. Because children or adults with ASD more easily destabilize from an imbalance of sensory input – either too much or too little – they benefit from a designated place where they can re-balance themselves.
Sensory rooms provide this space. Users of the sensory room can seek the opposite of whatever has caused them anxiety or stress.
If you’re reading this without ASD, here’s a way to relate.
Take a day to notice how your physical sensations affect your mood. You might assign higher-level reasons to something when, in fact, it’s just that your pants are too tight, and it’s irritating you!
An uncomfortable clothing tightness or texture might be top of mind for somebody with ASD, whereas a neurotypical brain might organize that information as less prevalent.
Essential Structure for a Sensory Room
Sensory rooms provide a sense of structure and safety, first and foremost. They need to be an organized space – a haven from the chaos of the world’s uncontrolled sensory input for the person with ASD.
The room may contain many different stations and activities. But you’ll want to keep them compartmentalized in clean, uncluttered containers or organizational furniture.
This helps avoid visual overstimulation for any users of the room. In practice, instead of letting toys be scattered all over the floor, you could keep them tucked away in different colored bins.
An autism sensory room essentially serves two purposes: stimulation or relaxation. We’ll go into the differences below.
Stimulating Space for Your Autism Sensory Room
People with autism may have trouble with proprioception (sensing their body’s position in space), balance, and general motor skills, often related to a mixture of body awareness and anxiety. Some also have a high threshold for certain sensory information, meaning that it takes a higher than average input to noticeably perceive something.
The solution to both of these is greater stimulation. This may come as some surprise, since many of us may be more familiar with the ASD “meltdown” from sensory overload. Increased stimulation, however, still needs to be monitored and structured.
Therapeutic/Exercise Balls for ASD
Educational programs use these to great effect. At a school in Connecticut, students start and end their sensory room experience by bouncing on inflatable spheres in time to a metronome.
This large movement increases the individuals’ sense of body awareness and helps them regulate their energy and focus.
Swings for ASD
You might look at a platform swing or rocking chair to serve this purpose. Similar to the bouncing ball, it helps build proprioception through movement of the whole body at once.
Keep in mind that Lycra swings or hammocks in which a child can “cocoon” usually have more of a relaxing effect, since they add body compression into the sensory mix.
Tactile Walls for ASD
These vertical activity centers really run the gamut. And they’re especially easy to construct at home. All that you need is a little wall space.
One option is to glue Lego foundations to the wall and let students build with Legos vertically. You could also cover the wall with whatever interesting textures are available – carpet, fringe, handles, knobs, tiles, stone, magnetic letters. As long as the materials are safe to handle and make sense for a vertical surface, give them a try.
Activity Stations for ASD
I’m sure you’ve started to imagine other stimulating activities for your person with ASD (just make sure to supervise, especially for the wilder activities like trampoline):
- Fidget toys
- Sensory bins full of small, satisfying objects to touch, i.e. rice and beans
- Obstacle courses
- Climbing – in controlled manners at safe heights
- Therapy trampolines – similar to therapeutic bouncing balls
- Bubble wrap (if popping noises aren’t too disturbing)
Check in to see what’s fun and what attracts them – that’s valuable information. To make this space engaging but not overwhelming, set up activities in separate quadrants.
Time how long the person stays at the station to set an expectation – say, 3-7 minutes – but don’t be overly rigid about it. They do need to stay in an activity long enough to experience the intended sensory effect.
You’ll want to balance providing a sense of external structure with feedback from the person with ASD.
Relaxing Space for Your Autism Sensory Room
On the other side of the aisle, sometimes the person with ASD will want to use the sensory room to chill out and decompress. (I’d wager that most of us need that kind of place more than we think!)
Incorporate the following elements to give them lots of options to self-soothe.
Calm Autism-Friendly Lighting
Go for warm, gentle LED or fiber optic lights that can be adjusted in different intensities and positions. This is preferable to cold-temperature, overly bright, harsh light; traditional light bulbs especially can give off heat and buzzing noise that irritates some people with ASD.
You could decorate the room with a bubble tube. This combines gentle, colorful light with the soothing visual of floating bubbles. And it can entrance the viewer and help them slip into a more relaxed state.
You might even consider making a light table, which is a bit of a blend between stimulation and relaxation. It’s easy to make a DIY one at home with a plastic storage container, tissue paper, and strings of Christmas lights. Then, you can use a number of translucent mediums to play:
- Colorful glass or plastic beads
- Non-toxic soap foam
- Plastic letters to practice verbal development
- Q-tips as a “paintbrush” to work fine motor skills
Soothing Sounds for ASD
Create a wash of auditory relaxation with tranquil music or white noise machines. If a person with ASD is very sensitive to sounds, they might enjoy access to some noise-blocking headphones while in the room.
Tents for ASD
Have you ever wanted to hide away from it all sometimes? People with ASD feel that way, too. Maybe many of us could benefit from a tent, a small, darker space in which we can feel safe and secure.
Weighted Products for ASD
Blankets, vests, lap pads, and stuffed animals – there are a range of weighted items out there that can provide people with ASD a comforting amount of compression.
Soft Autism-Friendly Floors and Seating
People with ASD can experience abnormal discomfort from sitting on hard surfaces. And, as we’ve mentioned balance problems, sometimes they just need a little padding around when they’re moving. Crash pads and bean bag chairs provide cushy landing zones.
Vibrating Sensory Input for ASD
This is good for people with ASD who are seeking stimulation but also need to wind down. You can use a simple, at-home hand massager, rolling it over them. You might start without vibration mode on and introduce it little by little.
Therapeutic Scents for Autism
Fairly universal aromatherapy can be applied in an autism sensory room the same as any room in your house. In this space, you may want to focus more on the intentions or effects of a particular scent.
For example, lavender tends to be heavily relaxing. It may even make somebody ready for a nap. Spritely scents like orange, lemon, or peppermint can be a bit more sharp and awakening.
This is an area where you’ll especially want to gauge your loved one’s reaction before overloading the room with what could be an unwanted smell.
Therapeutic Colors for Autism
When it comes to choosing a paint color for the wall of your room, it depends on your goals and the preferences of the individual with autism. It may be best to go with a neutral color, like a tan or gray, to make the walls the least stimulating part of the space. Note that ultra-bright whites can actually be overstimulating.
And keep in mind that color can be used in other ways, too. If you want to give a certain nook more “active” energy, use toys and sensory objects that are brightly colored. And you can use mellow blues and greens in chill zones – where you might put sensory swings or bean bag chairs. For some children, using soft roses and pinks may help them feel safe and calm.
DIY Autism Sensory Room
Creating a low-key version of an autism sensory room at home is absolutely worthwhile. It’s possible no matter your budget.
Many of the aspects we’ve discussed can be replicated in some fashion with common household or low-cost materials from a craft or thrift store. For instance, this article proposes asking furniture upholstery centers for leftover pieces of foam. Then you can cover them to make your own crash pad – for far fewer dollars.
The key to an individual sensory room at home is just that: the individual. Get to know the person with ASD.
When you observe what brings them delight or irritation, you will develop an instinct of what to put in a sensory room just for them. This customization also forms the beauty of an at-home sensory room.
Sensory Room Design Solutions
Families are a unit. When one person is destabilized, it affects everyone.
When you see the positive effects of just a few of the above changes, you might feel inspired to remodel or add on to create an entirely distinct sensory space for the person with ASD. You could accomplish this with a garage ADU or the addition of a wing to your home. Imagine the joy of having this new space to explore.
We would love to help you bring more balance to you and the loved one in your life with ASD. We are CAPS-certified home designers who work with the aging and people with chronic conditions daily, including ASD.
Contact us today to discuss inspiration and solutions for an autism sensory room in your own home.