One in 54 children are diagnosed with autism. The CDC defines autism as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Children with autism process sensory information differently in their everyday environments, making it important to set up their home to meet their needs.
Many of those diagnosed self-stimulate or to regulate their feelings, thoughts and experiences. Attempting to find ways to stimulate their senses can 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.
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.
What is a sensory system?
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 a sensory processing disorder, like autism, 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.
Types of sensory integration
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.
Some vestibular stimuli can be beneficial to children with autism as long as they’re already in a regulated state. Hammocks, booster swings, small trampolines or rocking chairs can help regulate the senses, calm strong emotions and prevent children from feeling overwhelmed.
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.
Minimal crawling when young, confusion on where their body is in space or excessive roughness can all be signs of proprioceptive sense dysfunction. 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 star jumps, chewing gum or pressure from a hug.
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.
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 or 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.
Benefits of a sensory room
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.
- Improved focus: Many individuals with autism have a hard time sitting still and paying attention for long periods of time. Sensory rooms can give them the tools and resources they need to learn focus and increase awareness.
- Calming effect: These rooms give children a safe space to decompress and escape unwanted stimuli. This space can help them regain control of their emotions and physical awareness.
- Assist in transitions: Compared to those who aren’t on the autism spectrum, people with autism tend to have a more challenging time changing their routines or handling transitions. Knowing that they have a space to decompress after any event out of routine can lead to less anxiety when things don’t go as planned.
- Improve socialization: Autism can have a huge impact on a person’s social skills and connections. Sensory rooms can be experienced with others to support social interactions.
- Motor skill development: When the vestibular system is over- or under-stimulated, it can cause a lack of balance and motor function. A sensory room is a great place to practice activities to practice movement that can help stabilize your child.
- Help with unstructured time: With the correct safety precautions in place, a sensory room can be a great place for your child to feel safe while you finish quick tasks like putting away the groceries.
- Improved quality of life: A sensory room can improve many aspects of life for a person with autism. It can assist with everything from improved social skills and focus to much more.
- Promotes safety: Many additional modifications can promote safety for your child in a sensory room and throughout your home. Making safety upgrades can give you increased peace of mind throughout the day as well.
Letting a child with autism know that they have a sensory room to come back to where they can regulate their emotions and recover from overwhelming stimuli can make the biggest difference in the world.
Sensory room ideas
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.
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 suggestions based on common stimuli triggers to make the process as easy as possible.
Ways to control noise stimuli
Many people on the autism spectrum have a heightened awareness of 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.
- Avoid fluorescent lighting: This type of lighting often makes a buzzing sound that can be frustrating for someone with autism.
- Replace hardwood floors: The noise our steps make on a hardwood floor can feel amplified to many on the autism spectrum. Try replacing your flooring with carpet where you can to mitigate this.
- Add rugs: If you don’t want to replace your hardwood floors, then another solution to muffle noise by adding rugs.
- Play calming music: Some children with autism find music to be soothing. If you notice they’re attracted to certain songs, you can play them quietly in the background of their sensory room.
- Invest in white noise machines: White noise can have a soothing effect on many people and can help drown out any background noise.
- Soundproof the room: Reduce outdoor noise pollution by adding a layer of drywall, install heavy curtains, hang blankets on the wall or insulation to your child’s sensory room.
- Reduce echoes: Adding soft furniture and flooring can help prevent unprompted echoes.
- Invest in a high-quality speaker: A speaker that’s out of reach can be a great way to play tranquil music while avoiding any static or low-quality sound that can upset your child.
If noise sensitivity is persistent throughout the day, talk to a doctor about other methods such as wearing headphones or earplugs.
Take visual stimuli into account
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.
- Create natural lighting: Bright lights can be stressful for individuals with autism, so it’s best to mimic natural lighting. Try purchasing bulbs with a color rendering index as close to 100 as possible.
- Install dimmer switches: Dimmers can help calm your child when they feel overstimulated and help create a more relaxing space.
- Use soft colors: Bright colors can be interpreted more intensely by children with autism — cool colors can have a soothing effect.
- Add anti-glare coating to windows: To avoid glare from the sun in your sensory room, simply add an anti-glare coating to your windows.
- Reduce clutter: Clutter can be hazardous and frustrating for people that are sensory sensitive. Keep your home tidy and organized to avoid this issue.
- Make a display wall: Display their artwork, trophies, awards or anything else that you are proud of them for. Creating a wall showcasing your child’s accomplishments is a great way to boost their confidence.
- Include blackout curtains: These will limit light exposure and can eliminate outside distractions.
If your child is sensitive to visual stimuli, these changes to their sensory room can make a big difference in making this space feel tranquil and safe.
Reduce the number of smells in your home
Smell is often overlooked when thinking about sensory room design 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.
- Turn on a diffuser: Diffusing essential oils can create a calming effect for some children with autism. Some common scents people use are frankincense, lavender and orange, but try different oils to see which one your child enjoys most.
- Use low-VOC paint: This type of paint has less odor and chemical smells than traditional paint types. If you’re planning a remodel or just an update of your child’s sensory room, be sure to shop for paints with this classification.
- Add a HEPA filter: These filters can help eliminate unwanted smells. Plus, they can generally improve your health by eliminating air pollutants.
- Have proper ventilation: Proper ventilation will improve the smell of your home and help with any lingering cooking odors.
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.
Create touch-friendly spaces
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.
- Create a tactile wall: A wall filled with different textures and materials can provide your child with a beneficial sensory experience and assist with fine motor skills.
- Include different textures: Adding various textures that your child loves in their sensory room can help calm them. This could be in the form of pillows, blankets and stuffed animals that are made of different materials.
- Fiber optic strings: These lights are not only visually appealing but are safe to touch and hold. The colorful strings give them a chance to combine visual stimuli with physical sensations.
- Include sensory toys: Touch-friendly sensory toys work to engage a child’s senses to help them focus and relax.
- Consider a crash pad: Investing in soft mats for specific walls and flooring for your child to bump into can help them release feelings and energy caused by triggering stimuli.
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.
Model sensory room
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.
Budget-friendly sensory room ideas
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 tips to create the sensory space of your dreams without breaking the bank.
- Create DIY sensory decor: You can make a sensory wall by using a corkboard and adding materials with different textures to create a DIY sensory wall. Some examples include carpet samples, ribbon, sponges, velcro, colorful cotton balls and more.
- Make a fidget box: Make your own box of toys with sensory items to help your child focus or relieve anxiety. Some examples of toys you might want to include are stress balls, play dough, koosh balls, a Rubix cube or any other safe, soothing toys you can find.
- Weighted blankets: These blankets can help calm stress and are an easy tool to have in your sensory room and around the house.
- Lava lamps: A lava lamp is a great alternative to expensive color-changing lights. Plus, it can have a calming effect.
- Textured pillows and blankets: You probably already have these around the house in different textures, making them a tremendous budget-friendly item to add to your collection.
These budget-friendly tips can be effective and affordable when creating your first sensory room.
Ideas for when you don’t have space for a 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.
- Create a calm corner: Simply add a tent or beanbag chair in the corner of any quiet room and include sensory items for your child to regulate their emotions. Include a box with toys, books or other stimulating items.
- Make a dedicated sensory wall: Sensory walls are an effective way to get tactile stimulation without taking up unnecessary room in your home.
- Convert a storage room: Take the door off of any closet or storage room, add a curtain or beads, empty it out and fill it with sensory objects and comfortable padding. This will help your child know that they always have a safe place to go.
- Turn a bedroom into a relaxing space: A bedroom can double as a sensory room. Make the room adjustments we mentioned earlier and maintain a tranquil space.
- Consider a portable sensory den: Create a portable safe space that you can transport from your home to vacation or while visiting family. Having a tent or structure that you bring with you that has calming items gives your child a safe place when their routine is disrupted.
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.
- Make shelving fall-proof: Bolt shelving into the wall to prevent it from tipping over if your child attempts to climb, push or pull on them.
- Invest in smart home technology: It’s common for children with autism to accidentally wander from their homes. It’s a great idea to install security cameras and alarms to prevent this from happening.
- Use safety locks: Keep drawers and cabinets safely locked if they contain hazardous materials. Bolt furniture to floor: It’s a good idea to secure furniture that can easily fall to prevent accidents.
- Install child gates: Use child gates to prevent your kids from wandering around the house unsupervised.
- Choose durable decor: Many kids on the autism spectrum enjoy touching new objects, so it’s important to have shatterproof decor.
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.
Find your dream apartment
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.