One in 54 children worldwide is diagnosed with autism. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines autism as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Some children with autism process sensory information differently in their everyday environments, making it important to set up their homes to meet their needs.
The central nervous system operates differently for many children with autism. Because of this, many individuals on the spectrum are unable to filter out noise and movement as well as individuals with a typical nervous system. This means that that noises may be louder, busy environments may be extra challenging and focusing can be more difficult.
Many of those diagnosed with autism ‘stim’ to regulate their feelings, thoughts and experiences. Sensory seekers attempt to find ways to stimulate their senses to help them cope with different emotional, mental and physical challenges they face. On the other hand, some children with autism either avoid certain sensory inputs and are sensory avoidant.
Creating a safe and accessible environment for individuals on the autism spectrum is one of the best ways to support them, no matter their individual needs. Thankfully, there are many ways to do this — one way is with a sensory room.
A sensory room can provide your child with valuable resources to decompress, feel calm and reduce anxiety, among other benefits we’ll cover in this piece. Our guide goes over the benefits of a sensory room, sensory room ideas, budget-friendly tips to creating one and much more.
Before we go over how to create a sensory room, it’s essential to understand the sensory system. A person’s sensory system is made up of neural pathways and sensory receptors that control how the brain perceives the five primary senses (taste, touch, smell, vision and hearing).
Here’s a way to break it down: imagine entering a crowded party. There might be many people talking, loud music in the background and the host’s dog barking as people come in. Somehow in all the commotion, you’re able to focus on the conversation in front of you and make the other noises fade into the background. This is because your sensory system helps you prioritize which senses are most important at that moment.
For someone with sensory processing issues, this may not be the case. There are two types of sensory experiences people on the autism spectrum can have: hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. Hypersensitive individuals can become overwhelmed by certain sensory information, while hyposensitive individuals typically demonstrate low responsiveness to sensory stimuli.
Everyone who has autism is different, but for many individuals with hypersensitivity, bright lights can feel extremely overwhelming, loud noises sound even louder or certain facial expressions can seem threatening. On the other hand, someone with hyposensitivity might feel a lack of awareness in their body, only see outlines of objects or have a high pain tolerance.
Researchers believe that at least three-quarters of children with autism experience sensory processing challenges. These can cause overwhelming feelings or make individuals feel the need to shut down. They can also cause stress in everyday life and make it challenging to engage with others.
Thankfully, there are many ways to address this. As a parent, there’s a lot you can do to accommodate your child’s needs and improve their overall quality of life. The first step is understanding sensory integration and your child’s unique experience.
Sensory integration is the brain’s process for understanding and perceiving sensory stimuli. When a person has a sensory processing disorder, their sensory integration is interrupted in one or more ways. There are three main types of sensory integration: vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile.
Our vestibular senses control our balance, movement and coordination. For those that experience interruptions in their vestibular systems, it can manifest physically with behaviors like spinning, jumping or rocking — this is what’s known as self-stimulation or “stim.” Although it’s not entirely clear why many people on the spectrum do this, it’s believed to be a way to regulate their emotions. It’s important to watch out for warning signs of vestibular dysfunction, such as dizziness or a lack of balance.
Lateral movement can be beneficial to children with autism as long as they’re already in a regulated state. Hammocks, swings, small trampolines or rocking chairs can help regulate the senses, calm strong emotions and prevent children from feeling overwhelmed.
On the other hand, too much vestibular movement can lead to dysregulation. In particular, rotary movements can cause stress if done at the wrong time or in the wrong way. It’s crucial to seek out professional advice before incorporating any type of vestibular movement into your child’s routine.
The proprioceptive sense sends the brain information about how the body is positioned any time we use our muscles and joints to perform an activity. Some examples of the proprioceptive system in action include going for a run, picking up heavy groceries, writing your name or chewing food.
Signs of proprioceptive sense dysfunction can include balance issues, clumsiness and uncoordinated movement. Any activity that involves pressure or working the muscles can help stimulate the proprioceptive senses and help children with autism have a better sense of their bodies in space. Some common tactics to help individuals that struggle with this are jumping with hands and legs extended into a star jump, chewing gum, pressure from a hug, pushing a grocery cart or shutting a car door.
The tactile sense essentially refers to any inputs we receive via touch. Tactile dysfunction can make it difficult to wear certain types of clothing, eat foods with certain textures or be comfortable with unexpected touch. Denim in particular is one of the worst offenders.
If you’re in a situation where your child is overwhelmed by tactile input, it’s a great idea to provide ways to give them proprioceptive input in order to calm their anxiety or stress. Test out things like jumping, squeezing a stress ball, playing with Play Doh or using a weighted blanket and see what works best for them.
Keep in mind that every child with autism has their own unique needs and tactics that work best for them. If any of these suggestions cause more stress or anxiety for your child, it’s a good idea to stop the activity. Always speak to a therapist and doctor to find out your best options.
A sensory room is a space filled with items that can create a sensory experience for your child. These rooms are created to be a relaxing space and give children an opportunity to regulate their emotions and senses.
Sensory rooms can be modified to fit your child’s needs and carry a multitude of benefits when set up correctly. These benefits can make a big difference in their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Giving a child with autism a sensory room to return to again and again where they can regulate their emotions and recover from overwhelming stimuli can make it possible for a child to fare better when not at home.
It’s important to keep in mind your child’s sensory sensitivities when creating a sensory room or making home modifications. Once you’ve determined those sensitivities, you’ll be able to decide on what aspects and tools are worth investing in.
Our number one suggestion for a sensory room is to invest in a swing. Swings can help promote relaxation, ease anxiety and reduce stress.
It is important to find a contractor that can install this properly for you, ideally securing it to a ceiling beam for extra security. Children should not be left alone with the swing unsupervised because of the risk of serious injury, but it is an amazing asset with parent supervision.
Once you’ve decided you want to create a sensory room, knowing where to start can feel overwhelming. To help, we’ve broken down our sensory room ideas based on common stimuli triggers to make the process as easy as possible.
Many people on the autism spectrum have a heightened awareness of the noises around them. Everyday sounds can cause distress, or the person might be able to pick up noises most of us don’t even notice. Thankfully, there are many ways to reduce distracting noise in your home and create a calm environment in their sensory room.
If noise sensitivity is persistent throughout the day, talk to a doctor about other methods such as wearing headphones or earplugs.
Certain lights, colors and visual inputs can be overwhelming to your child on the autism spectrum. Although there are some things you can’t control in the outside world when it comes to visual stimuli, there are easy fixes for this in your sensory room.
If your child is sensitive to visual stimuli, these sensory room ideas can make a big difference in making this space feel tranquil and safe.
Smell is often overlooked when thinking about sensory room ideas and possible home modifications. Certain odors can easily trigger someone with autism, especially if they have a heightened intensity and awareness of scents. Here are several ways to help address this issue.
It can be challenging to determine sensitivities if your child has trouble communicating what bothers them in a particular moment. These precautions can help eliminate general smells in your home and make it easier to eliminate the possibility of unwanted odors.
Many people with autism either avoid tactile input or crave specific textures and feelings. Creating a room filled with materials they enjoy touching is a great way to provide them with a secure sensory environment.
It’s best to discover what materials your child enjoys most before filling their sensory room with tactile items. This will help their sensory room be an enjoyable place filled with things they love.
Each family’s sensory room should be different and cater to their child’s unique needs. We’ve included a model sensory room to give you a visual representation of what a sensory room could look like.
Sensory rooms don’t have to be complicated. Focus on a few sensory activities along with the lighting, music and overall atmosphere.
When you look at items for sensory rooms online, many retailers will advertise products that are hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Seeing those price tags can make anyone panic or give up on the idea of a sensory room.
Thankfully, creating a perfect sensory room doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money. Here are some budget-friendly sensory room ideas to create the space of your dreams without breaking the bank.
These budget-friendly tips can be effective and affordable when creating your first sensory room.
If you’re in a home without a spare room, there are plenty of alternatives that take up less space when creating a sensory room.
These condensed versions of a sensory space can give the same benefits as an entire bedroom dedicated to a sensory experience with the proper planning.
Children on the autism spectrum might require additional support when it comes to safety precautions. While you consider making changes to your home and creating a sensory room, make sure to take into account safety precautions. Here are some basics to keep in mind.
When planning a sensory room, safety should always be a priority. Speak with a therapist to help create the best plan of action for your child’s sensory room.
If you’re looking for your dream apartment with additional bedrooms to create a sensory room then Apartment Guide has you covered. Use our apartment finder tool to find your next home.