Many of us have a special spot at home that helps us hit the reset button. It might be a favorite chair, a quiet nook or simply under the covers, in bed. But for children on the autism spectrum or who have sensory processing issues, finding this kind of sanctuary can be challenging, because ordinary items in the home, such as a bright lamp or a textured rug, can trigger a negative reaction.
Some public or commercial spaces, including schools, airports and sports stadiums, now offer sensory rooms that carry a wide variety of therapy equipment. Setting one up at home, though, need not be as elaborate or expensive.
“It’s all about providing a safe and enjoyable space that a child can navigate independently,” said Paige Siper, the chief psychologist at the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. She recommends having an occupational therapist do an assessment to determine the child’s sensory preferences and needs before designing a space.
With one in 59 children now identified with autism spectrum disorder, there are more parents who have experimented with simple home design hacks to help their children cope with their sensory processing issues — where everyday auditory, visual and other stimuli are experienced in a heightened way. Although not everyone with sensory processing issues has autism, many do. Studies conducted by the STAR Institute, a research center based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, suggest that about 75% of children on the autism spectrum have significant symptoms of sensory processing disorder.
Simple design changes could include soundproofing rooms, and installing heavier doors and quieter laundry machines and dishwashers. For children who find too much stimulus in everyday items around the home, finding clutter-free storage ideas is another easy fix.
Lindsey Biel, an occupational therapist with a practice in Manhattan, said that equipment and toys from a therapy catalog could also be helpful, but she noted that they could be pricey and even counterproductive if the wrong item was bought. For example, the Dizzy Disc, a spin toy, may help some children release energy and strengthen balance and coordination skills. For others, though, the vestibular movement may provide overstimulation.
“You have to fine-tune the space and equipment to the individual’s needs,” said Biel, who is an author of “Raising a Sensory Smart Child.”
Biel recommends simple tweaks in the home, such as installing light dimmers and replacing harsh fluorescent lights with warmer LED light bulbs. Walls should be a soft, neutral color, and patterned wall paper avoided. And for children who need movement, a rocking chair, hammock or a pod swing can help.
Vanessa Flyer, whose 3-year-old son, Julian, is on the autism spectrum and sensitive to sound and light, among other things, created a quiet nook for him in their Brooklyn, New York, home. She squeezed a small tent into the corner of his bedroom and cushioned the bottom with old baby blankets. Inside, there are several cushions; some hand-held sensory toys are stored in a felt bin nearby.
Flyer, who often reads books to Julian in the tentt, said her son seeks out the space on his own, especially when the family has company.
“[It] is his refuge, but it can also be fun,” said Flyer, who purchased it for less than $100.
Flyer also installed automated blinds for about $900. Sometimes the natural sunlight is too harsh and it is all Julian can focus on, leading him to pace and repeat certain words or phrases, known as echolalia. Julian operates the automated blinds himself to help regulate his own environment.
Michael Volchok saw the need to create a safe exercise space for his son, Max, who is on the autism spectrum and has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Max, 6, became an expert at climbing bookcases when he was about 4. So when Volchok learned that a children’s play space in his Manhattan neighborhood was closing two years ago, he offered to buy all the sensory exercise equipment. This included a climbing wall, numerous mats, foam barrels and stairs. The owner let him take everything, he said, including a wooden play kitchen set, for about $1,500.
“I saved thousands,” said Volchok, adding that he had previously used closeout sales to buy items for his own computer business.
The costs connected to raising a child with special needs include fees for special schools, doctors, medication and therapies. A study published in 2014 in the journal Pediatrics said that parents of a child with autism paid about $17,000 more per year for health care and other needs than parents with a neurologically typical child.
Some retailers now offer more affordable sensory-friendly options. Target introduced a line of sensory-friendly furniture for children last April, with each piece costing less than $110.
Some families have designed their own sensory-friendly items. Tamara Petrovic, a product designer at 0 to 1, a design firm that she runs with her husband, Garner Oh, an architect, said she looked for an eco-friendly soft wall and floor covering because her son, Kas, 10, has cerebral palsy. The couple first outfitted their two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with foam-rubber mats, but they found them hard to keep clean. Petrovic was also concerned about using regular floor rugs because she thought loose fibers could set off Kas’ tactile sensitivities and cause muscle spasms.
Unable to find exactly what they wanted, the couple designed their own wall and floor padding with cork, felt and canvas. In place of an ordinary kitchen table, they designed a low-lying cork table, along with foam cushions that could be rearranged into various seating configurations. A sturdy indoor slide set that would fit in their living room was difficult to find, so Oh designed one and built it with the help of a friend and a family member.
Now that Kas is outgrowing the slide, the couple plan to donate it to his former school. Petrovic said she might put up a hammock and build something new so Kas could continue to develop his physical strength.
“There are a lot of things you can buy online, but I think there’s a huge gap in simply designed, eco- and budget-friendly items” for special needs children, she said.