Experts say wellness design offers benefits for people on the autism spectrum

“Autism is on the rise dramatically, and the prevalence rate has almost tripled since 2000,” says a Connecticut-based child psychologist and author of It’ll Be Alright: Proven Ways to Reverse Your Child’s Mental Health Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. “According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately one in 44 children has autism,” She adds.

“Having a child with autism can be overwhelming, but changing the spaces in your home isn’t necessary to reduce behaviors,” she advises, adding that these changes can have a positive impact on behavior.

Dallas Area Interior Designer Shelly Rosenberg knows it first hand. She is the mother of three special needs children (with diagnoses of ADHD, Autism and Down Syndrome) and specializes in creating responsive spaces for guests with special needs.

“Most people with autism have issues with sensory integration and self-regulation. This can feel like overload, fusion, aggression, excessive and repetitive movement, or even complete shutdown,” she explains, and these can be resolved with environmental adjustments.”In adaptive home design, I decipher what is needed – additions and/or subtractions – and go from there to balance their environment.”

Spatial planning

For a hypersensitive client prone to sensory overload, Rosenberg offers some bedroom ideas, based on her own experience with her daughter: “Visual harmony is necessary. I decreased the amount of physical furniture and accessories a typical room might have. Only a low platform bed (balancing can be an issue, which makes these kids accident-prone), a nightstand, a table/desk lamp, and a natural wood shelf. The walls are a solid, soft gray, as are the window treatments, so there are no jarring patterns or contrasts. Fabrics and bedding can be interesting texture-wise, but nothing scratchy or itchy! Toys or clutter are contained or hidden in the closet with this door closed. »

For the hyposensitive client who needs stimulation, their environment should be designed to include the right level for that individual. (Isolation during the pandemic has been an added challenge for a hyposensitive child, Rosenberg observes from his son’s experience.)

“For similar clients, I recommend solutions that compensate for the lack of sensory input. Consider buying a mini-trampoline, ceiling or door frame mounted swing, portable ball pits, gym mats to act as crash pads for wrestling/jumping/exercise, chairs swivel chairs or stools for turning, pillow fights, sensory tables with marbles, kinetic sand or Legos, or frequent trips outside during the day. All these needs respond to sensory needs. For someone doing distance education, the ability to move between computer sessions is especially important, she advises.

Lighting and temperature

“Light control is paramount,” says Rosenberg. “Light layers are preferred for maximum user control. Electric lighting can include hanging cans, a lamp, and a dim nightlight. One very useful hack is to add a dimmer to the overhead. Another is to make sure all bulbs match and are the preferred temperature. Hypersensitive children can see if one light is bright blue in temperature and the other is dull yellow.

Rosenberg’s daughter is hypersensitive, she shares, and only wanted natural light when possible. “At sunset, however, she needed full-spectrum, low-wattage, daylight-mimicking bulbs for tasks, and preferred a pink or red bulb in her lamp to signify evening light to her brain. before bedtime.”

Lighting tuning like this can be achieved with human-centered or circadian lighting based on automation, a Massachusetts-based technology integrator Jen Mallett suggests to its customers on the spectrum.

“While everyone can benefit from the convenience of smart home technology, we’ve found that customers with autism benefit more directly from the wellness capabilities that technology can enable.” Smart thermostats also make spaces more comfortable and healthier for customers, she notes.

Window Coverings and Views

“Slatted blinds can create patterns on the walls that can be distracting or irritating, so these can be removed,” advises Rosenberg. She specified draped sheers paired with blackout panels to manage light and views instead.

Mallett has found that automated shades can be helpful. They add to a sense of privacy and make it easier to control hard-to-reach windows, reducing frustration and potential falls.

“Even with autism, humans respond positively to nature and the natural elements used indoors.” Rosenberg’s daughter chose her room based on its view of the trees beyond her window, she recalled, adding, “She also requested a pastel mural of Japanese cherry branches for the wall behind her. bed. This thirst for natural patterns is a universal tenet of biophilia that I often incorporate into client spaces; just be sure to determine which models appeal to each customer.

“Being in nature has been shown to lower blood pressure and promote a calm state of mind,” observes Mallett, but not everyone has this special access. If a home lacks nature views — and many do, especially in urban settings — those can be created with technology. “A wellness scene can be programmed to queue nature sounds, forest visuals, and lighting to provide an indoor forest bathing experience,” says the technologist. “Specialized automation controlling lighting, sound, and video can create a serene or energizing environment, depending on the individual’s need at the time,” she adds.

noise control

“Domestic noises can be hearing problems,” comments Rosenberg. “For the younger ones, I include an adjustable sound machine to create preferable white noise. Sometimes individual irritants need to be dealt with, such as the sound of air coming from an HVAC vent; if a hissing or rattling is detected, we can fix it or close it all together Any acoustic pads can be helpful, like thicker carpets, draft blockers under doors, or even attractive felt acoustic tiles on the walls.

Shared spaces

“Family rooms are places where multiple types of people relate to each other, so I design with flexibility in mind,” says Rosenberg. “Create a space where family members could sit together to play games or visit. Then design spots where several people can meet independently, while staying in the same room. Furniture can float in a room, but some may need a resting space where their back is sheltered against a wall or partition. If a house is not naturally flexible or easily modified for an autistic person, I will design a small sensory space where that person can “check” to regulate their own nervous system. »

Additional planning considerations

There are myriad environmental considerations for an autistic person beyond layout, light, temperature and furnishings, the designer comments. “I educate the client on more nuanced sensory considerations like smell and taste,” she notes. These include air and water quality, where improvements are achievable and measurable in terms of reducing airborne or waterborne contaminants. This in turn can provide a cooler room and better consumer experience, as well as reduced exposure to known risks. “There is no doubt that better health translates to improved mood and self-regulation in many circumstances.” To support them, it offers whole-house water filtration or HVAC systems to its customers.

Safety is also a concern for customers on the spectrum and their loved ones, Mallett notes. “Wireless sensors on windows, exterior cameras and smart locks provide connection and peace of mind for caregivers without being intrusive.” Fall detection sensors can also alert a family member of danger, and floor mats can provide biometric data.

Final Thoughts

“When it comes to children with autism, every area of ​​their home environment can be improved to meet the physical, behavioral, communication, and mental health needs of the child and family,” Capanna-Hodge comments. “Children with autism need to feel safe and comfortable and this needs to be coupled with a high degree of predictability in environment and routines. Giving children with ASD environmental resources to support their sensory sensitivity and behaviors rigid can go a long way toward calming the brain and behavior, which improves learning, attention, and communication.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: Dr. Capanna-Hodge, Mallett, and Rosenberg will share their insights in an hour-long conversation at the Clubhouse tomorrow afternoon at 4 p.m. EST/1 p.m. PT. You can participate in this discussion WELLNESS WEDNESDAY here.

Abdul J. Gaspar