Autism and sensory processing disorder (SPD) are not the same things but many children with autism experience sensory issues alongside their other symptoms. When a child has SPD, they either over- or under-react to certain sensory information they receive. The child may display extreme and even worrying behaviors when confronted with everyday occurrences. Some children with SPD display atypical behaviors regarding only one of the senses. Others may struggle with various sources of input.
When a child has a sensory processing disorder, it’s important that parents find a trained sensory integration therapist who can help them adjust based on their unique needs. While sensory integration therapy should always be administered by a professional, there are ways parents can help their child assimilate to sensory experiences from the safety and comfort of home. Many families find that by transforming the child with autism’s bedroom into a sensory haven, they are able to find respite from the outside world, develop tolerance to certain stimuli and even refine motor skills.
Clean, Comfortable and Healthy
A child’s sensory-friendly bedroom should embody these three characteristics: clean, comfortable and healthy. Excess clutter and mess elevate levels of anxiety in adults and kids alike, but children with autism can be reactive to a room where everything is out of order. Providing ample storage space and keeping the room as free from clutter as possible is a great place to start.
Help your child clean and organize their room, making sure they have plenty of cubbies, shelves and closet space as storage solutions. Spend a day giving each item its designated “home” in the room. If your child responds well to visual clues, draft up sketches or print out photos to label drawers, baskets and cubbies as reminders where certain items go.
In addition to decluttering your child’s room, you’ll also need to clear the air, especially if anyone in the house smokes or you regularly use your fireplace or a wood-burning stove. Unfortunately, many families are unaware of just how polluted the air is in their home. These pollutants can lead to both short- and long-term health problems for the whole family, but they can also be irritating for a child with sensory processing issues.
Children on the autism spectrum, in particular, can be sensitive to smells. Outfitting their room with an air purifier that removes smoke pollutants and allergens including dust, dander and mold will improve the indoor air quality in their room for a comfortable good night’s sleep. In addition, remember to regularly replace air filters, to ensure your entire home is being filtered for airborne pollutants. Look to ones with a MERV rating of 8 or higher — the higher the MERV, the higher level of filtration.
Fun Sensory Activities and Decorations
Once the room is clean, organized and comfortable the real fun begins. Outfitting a child’s room is a personal endeavor. You want to make it fun but not over-stimulating while adhering to the child’s tastes, interests and personal style. To establish a calming space, use soothing colors like blues, greens, purples, browns and black. Stark and bright colors can be overstimulating and upset the child in a space where they are supposed to feel comforted.
Have an area set up for “cocooning,” whether it’s a weighted blanket on their bed or a bean bag in the corner. Some kids like their own little sensory deprivation area in the form of a fort, tent, or teepee. This is where they can avoid unpleasant lights and sounds when feeling overwhelmed. Many parents like to install a simple swing from the ceiling that acts as a place for reading and hanging out while it also refines motor skills, improves coordination and helps the child become accustomed to gravitational insecurity.
While not all children with sensory processing disorders have autism, it’s not uncommon for the two to co-occur. A sensory bedroom is a space where the child can feel comfortable and safe when the world otherwise seems insecure to them. While decorating a sensory bedroom is personal, parents of children with autism should first and foremost make sure the area is free of clutter, clean and conducive to their good health.