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Sarah Marshall’s indoor swing helps her cope with severe autism. “Kids with autism need to move constantly. They can’t feel their bodies in a space without moving,” her mother explains. (photo by Eli Wallace)

Try these suggestions

for a therapeutic, sensory-friendly home and garden for children with autism spectrum disorder.

By Eli Wallace

Most of us have a few ideas about what we’d like in our dream home: a spiral staircase with a beautiful banister, an open floor plan, or possibly a backyard retreat. Of course, as families grow, life has a tendency to get in the way. Suddenly that glass table is covered in infant fingerprints, and that dangerous banister? What were you thinking?

A weighted blanket applies deep pressure, akin to a hug, that comforts autistic children and also helps with sleep problems. (photo courtesy Autism Community Store)
A weighted blanket applies deep pressure, akin to a hug, that comforts autistic children and also helps with sleep problems. (photo courtesy Autism Community Store)

For any family, it’s crucial to create a comfortable, child-friendly home. But when you have a child with autism, there’s more to it than painting the walls in the right shade of lemon chiffon and covering up the outlets. Children with autism are especially sensitive to sensory stimulation, like lighting, sounds and smells, and the movement of their own bodies through space.

Providing them with areas of both sensory stimulation and deprivation in the home and garden can aid with therapy, and studies have shown vestibular stimulation, which is the input your body receives from moving under gravity, can stimulate speech in autistic children. While your child may grow to have specific preferences or needs, these tips are a good place to start.

In the Home: Energy and Calm

Julie Hoffman Marshall is an outspoken advocate of providing sensory-friendly arts experiences for children with autism. She’s the mother of daughters Sarah, 12, who has severe autism, and Jazzy, 8. Her Lafayette home has undergone a few updates to make it more sensory friendly.

“When we moved in, all the bathrooms were carpeted. Getting rid of that was great for potty training,” she says. But the most obvious change is the large swing hanging in the living room. “Kids with autism need to move constantly. They can’t feel their bodies in a space without moving,” she explains. The swing cost about $200, and Marshall purchased it online using a Medicaid waiver for adaptive equipment.

“It’s amazing what the swing does—it helps unlimit her speech. It’s also a cool centerpiece when other kids come over,” she says. If a swing isn’t in the cards, try to accommodate some form of exercise and movement by including things like a miniature trampoline or balance board. Natural lighting helps improve mood, too.

When designing a stimulation area, use bolder, warmer colors like reds, yellows and oranges. The stimulation area is where toys should be kept, and it’s the best place for a television or stereo, especially if other family members share the space.

A spare bathroom at Denver’s Autism Community Store undergoes a transition into a “sensory cave”—a sensory-deprivation space buffered from strong light and sounds that helps calm autistic children, explains store cofounder Shannon Sullivan. (photo courtesy Autism Community Store)
A spare bathroom at Denver’s Autism Community Store undergoes a transition into a “sensory cave”—a sensory-deprivation space buffered from strong light and sounds that helps calm autistic children, explains store cofounder Shannon Sullivan. (photo courtesy Autism Community Store)
The store’s completed sensory cave contains soothing items for autistic children, including a fiber-optic light, a bubbling LED lamp, a mirror to reflect the light, and a padded floor chair with piles of pillows. The walls lack decoration to keep sensory input to a minimum. (photo courtesy Autism Community Store)
The store’s completed sensory cave contains soothing items for autistic children, including a fiber-optic light, a bubbling LED lamp, a mirror to reflect the light, and a padded floor chair with piles of pillows. The walls lack decoration to keep sensory input to a minimum. (photo courtesy Autism Community Store)

In addition to this activity-filled space, be sure to create a quiet space, either in a separate room or in a specific, partitioned-off area. “If someone has sensory challenges that cause them to be overwhelmed by the massive amount of sensory input we take in every day, it’s really vital to have a space to escape and regroup,” explains Shannon Sullivan, cofounder of the parent-owned Autism Community Store in Denver. Sullivan calls sensory-deprivation areas “sensory caves,” and has made them in rooms, tents and cozy corners.

Sensory-deprivation spaces should be calm, quiet and not too bright, and ideally in a soothing palette of blues or purples. Fluorescent lights are agitating, so a nice alternative is to create LED light walls or panels by placing colored LED lights behind opaque glass. If it’s a bedroom, blackout curtains can help with sleeping issues.

“I would start with finding a suitable location that can be buffered from light and sound,” Sullivan says. A sense of enclosure and protection is key.

Keep your quiet space sparse by removing decorations from the walls and providing soft surfaces. A large padded chair or pile of pillows adds “deep pressure,” Sullivan says, a form of touch—like firm hugging or stroking—that has a calming, focusing effect. Comfort items and fascinating objects that don’t ask anything of the child, like a fiber-optic lamp, can complete a sensory-deprivation space.

“It doesn’t have to be expensive to create these critical spaces,” Sullivan says. Her store currently sells a stand-alone sensory cave that includes a tent, a padded floor, a fiber-optic light and a starry-skies ceiling light for under $200.

In the Garden: Sun and Shade

Like indoor spaces, sensory-friendly gardens have two areas: one for movement and play and another for quiet and calm.

The best outdoor retreats offer shade and a sense of privacy and enclosure. (photo courtesy Autism Community Store)
The best outdoor retreats offer shade and a sense of privacy and enclosure. (photo courtesy Autism Community Store)

Concentrate the brightly colored yellow or red flowers into one action-packed area, where both sunshine and space are plentiful. If space is at a premium in your garden, an outdoor swing could be placed in the more active area to allow for exercise.

Sensory projects can help introduce your child to the garden, as well as create a calming effect. “We bring a pan of miniature seashells or beans out on the back porch for Sarah to touch while she enjoys the outdoors,” Marshall says. “We also had a table with sand for her to feel. Just don’t bring the beans into the garden, or you’ll be picking bean sprouts all summer.”

Gardens are inherently stimulating, but it’s still possible to create a safe haven from overstimulation outdoors. Soothing, scented plants like gardenia and jasmine have a calming effect, as do white and purple flowers. The best garden havens provide shade along with an enclosed, private space. Introduce structures like pergolas with a “cuddle swing” that enfolds your child in cloth, or create a hideaway area using tall shrubs as walls.

Tips from the Brits

Across the pond, sensory-friendly gardening is gaining steam. Two new sensory-friendly gardens will be featured at Royal Horticultural Society shows this year.

“The Pro Corda Garden: A Suffolk Retreat” is a sensory-friendly garden in England created by Frederic Whyte.
“The Pro Corda Garden: A Suffolk Retreat” is a sensory-friendly garden in England created by Frederic Whyte.

“Gardens can be wonderful places for people with autism, either providing a calm and safe retreat or an open, free area for running around and relieving stress—ideally both. Making simple adjustments to your outdoor space and creating a low-arousal environment that supports their needs can greatly benefit their well-being,” explained Frederic Whyte, designer of “The Pro Corda Garden: A Suffolk Retreat,” to Horticulture Week.

His small Suffolk garden focuses on creating a sensory-friendly space for children to enjoy music. Features include:

  • A calming pastel palette of blues, creams and yellows
  • An outdoor “summerhouse”
  • A gently bubbling water feature made from pig troughs (a nod to the local area)
  • Outdoor speakers that play music at intervals
  • Tall yew trees that create an enclosed area

A second garden, titled “ACE Kids: Spectrum of Genius,” was designed by Shea O’Neill and inspired by her son, who is on the autism spectrum. “For my boy, gardening has been life-changing and I can’t recommend it enough to anybody who lives or works with people with autism,” O’Neill told the Fulham Chronicle. “He wasn’t a happy little boy, but he is happiest in the garden and has been transformed as a result of it.”

O’Neill’s garden space is also designed to encourage reading. Features include:

  • A brightly colored school garden with a calm reading area
  • Nontoxic edible flowers, including cannas and dahlias
  • Pergolas with suspended “reading pods”
  • A therapy dog that children are encouraged to read to
  • Wide-open lawn space to allow for running and movement
  • A timber reading room with LED mood walls
  • Quotes from Yeats, Einstein and other visionaries who were on the spectrum

—E.W.

Comfort Tools

By creating high- and low-sensory environments in the home and garden, you enable your child to seek out the space that corresponds to their needs, giving them the tools to feel comfortable at home. Fortunately, even implementing a few of these tips will give your child access to options, and finding the right tools is easier than ever.

“We decided to open the Autism Community Store as a resource for the parents, therapists and dedicated professionals who will go to the ends of the earth to help our kids. Hopefully, now they don’t have to,” Sullivan says. Visit the store online at www.autismcommunitystore.com or in person at its southeast Denver location. More resources and information about autism are available at the Autism Society of Boulder County, www.autismboulder.org.