In a world full of diversity, every individual brings something important to the table. This includes Autistic children, who offer their own perspectives, strengths, and individual ways of processing the world around them. Creating sensory-friendly spaces for Autistic children is a way of celebrating these differences and making sure they have environments where they can grow, learn, process information, and feel safe. In this guide, we'll dive into the practical aspects of crafting these spaces, all while embracing neurodiversity.
Understanding Sensory Processing
Before we dive into the hands-on details, it helps to understand the diverse sensory experiences that many Autistic children experience. Autistic children may have heightened sensitivity or a decreased response to different sensory inputs, such as light, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Heightened sensitivity might lead to sensory overload, avoiding certain sensory inputs, and feelings of anxiety, while a decreased response could result in a person seeking what appears to be intense sensory experiences. Most of these actions (sensory seeking or avoidance) have the same goal: regulation. Both kids and adults will reach their optimum levels of learning and "being" while they are regulated.
It's important to remember what is calming, and sensory supportive to some or many, will not be the same for all. This is why it is key to remember individual preferences in needs when creating a sensory friendly environment.
Designing a Sensory-Friendly Space:
First you will want to consider the area you are working with. Many kids thrive when given a decluttered space to prevent sensory overwhelm and make it easier for them to navigate the space. Many Autistic children also benefit from clearly defined areas of space to provide structure and predictability. This may include labeled activities/bookshelves, zones for different types of activities, color coded areas, and visuals to support a child's needs.
1. Offer Fidgets and Sensory Toys:
Access to fidgets can allow kids to redirect excess energy and meet sensory needs which can actually lead to increased focus (there can be a fine line between tool to focus and toy for distraction, so be sure to test many items to see what works for each situation/need).
Consider sensory elements such as weight, tactile experiences, visual stimulation, and volume needed for different environments.
Talk with or observe child and their needs to know what items might be needed at certain times, settings, and when experiencing different feelings and/or needs (i.e. need calming items vs stimulating items).
Some of my favorites are linked below, you may have to scroll through if you are on a phone, and then just click!
2. Provide Warm Light and Dimming Options:
Utilize adjustable lighting options like dimmer switches to regulate the intensity of light.
Consider using warm, soft lighting instead of harsh fluorescent lights.
Consider light options that allow a person to choose which color will light up the space for individualized support.
3. Consider Scents and Smells:
Opt for mild scents or neutral smells to avoid overwhelming the child.
Avoid strong-smelling cleaning products or scents that may trigger sensory discomfort.
Ensure that the environment is clean and free from any strong odors.
If child has a strong preference for or seeks out smells, try smelly markers/erasers, or other items a child enjoys smelling.
4. Provide Flexible Seating: (check sizing)
Proving multiple options for where a child can sit will allow them to select a seat based off of changing needs.
Comfort, stability, and texture of seating should all be considered.
Options for movement can help movement seeking children stay regulated and focused while remaining in a designated area.
For educational purposes, accept that some children do best when they are allowed to stand, pace, and/or rock side to side. Having a taped in area can help a child have a designated area for these movements.
5. Tactile Comfort:
Introduce sensory items like rugs, textured or vibrating cushions, weighted blankets, and fidget toys (listed above).
Multi-sensory decor and items can meet multiple needs at once, not just tactile!
Movement and magnetic based items can be helpful when gross motor heavy work is not available.
6. Noise Reduction:
Incorporate soft materials such as carpets, rugs, and curtains to dampen echoing and reduce noise.
Offer noise-cancelling headphones for the child to use when needed.
Sound reducing wall panels can also help dampen sounds within and outside of the room.
8. Use Calming Colors:
Opt for soft, muted colors on walls to create a calm atmosphere. Bright, contrasting colors might be overwhelming for some (but as always, consider individual preferences).
Minimize busy patterns and excessive decorations that can cause visual clutter.
Use blackout curtains to control natural light and reduce sensory stimuli from outside.
9. Provide Visual Supports:
Visual supports such as visual times and visual schedules can aid a child as they transition from one activity to another.
Having a visual choice board to help a child know which activities are available at a give time can help if a child is overwhelmed with options.
Provide a calming corner with visuals to aid a child with calming techniques for co-regulation and self-regulation.
Tailoring the Environment
Remember that every Autistic child is unique. Some children may have specific sensory triggers or preferences that require customization. Regularly observe the child's reactions to the environment and adjust accordingly.
Creating a sensory-friendly environment for Autistic children is a great accommodation to help them thrive regardless of if they are at home or school. By acknowledging and accommodating their sensory sensitivities, caregivers and support staff can provide a safe haven where children can flourish. The journey to crafting a sensory-friendly space is one of continuous learning and adaptation, but the reward is immeasurable – a child who feels understood, supported, and empowered to navigate their world with confidence.
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