Designing a welcoming home for a person with autism is important in creating a world grounded in equity and inclusion. And the first step is asking for guidance from people who understand autism better than anyone else. We spoke with Bruce Petherick, an Autistic Advocate who provides support for families through Autism Canada. Through his professional career and personal experiences, Bruce shared how to decorate your home in sensory-friendly ways and included three important rules to follow when sharing life with autistic people.
The first step in creating a welcoming space for an autistic person is to simply ask about their preferences, their strengths and their weaknesses (in a polite and gentle manner). As Bruce explained, “each autistic person is unique and will have their own strengths and weaknesses.” Let them share those with you, don’t jump to conclusions. For instance, assuming that all autistic people are sensitive to sensory elements of a room is wrong. There’s a vast range between sensory seeking and sensory sensitive, and everyone’s combination is unique.
Assess the Visuals in Your Home
Sensory of all kinds should be considered when designing a space for autistic people. Consider the number of colours in a room, the styles of patterns, and the visuals crowding walls. Ask yourself if anything can be removed, if needed. Having a deep understanding of the individual you’re welcoming into your home will help you gauge if visuals will be a disturbance or OK.
The Sounds of Your Home
Be aware of the sounds in your home. Is there a hum of machinery? A ticking of a clock? Anything that might create an audio distraction should be noted and turned off if necessary to make an autistic person more comfortable in the home.
Consider Your Textiles
Doconsider the textiles in your home. For those who are sensory seeking, soft and cozy textures will provide a comfortable and welcoming environment. On the flip side, do note any furniture, throws or pillows with textures that might be itchy and off putting, and do your best to remove them or cover them.
Take Note of the Smells in Your Home
Like visuals, sounds and textures, the smells in your home could be an issue for an autistic person. Avoid burning candles or using strong cleaning products before a visit. Bruce points out that new furniture can often give off a strong odor that’s unpleasant for autistics, so try to be mindful of this, and air out new furniture.
Create Adjustable Lighting
Having the ability to adjust the lighting of your room will be helpful when designing for an autistic person. If your overhead lighting doesn’t have a dimmer switch, you can easily introduce floor or table lamps to find a comfortable amount of light depending on the time of day.
Preparing for Visitors
If an autistic person is visiting your home, they likely don’t expect you to have designed it with their life in mind, but reaching out to them prior to the visit, to ask how you can make your home more comfortable, is a wonderful step. Bruce reminds that sensitivities can also evolve during a visit, “We are often not fully aware of the sensitivity becoming overwhelming until it is too late, and it can be difficult to ask for help for this reason. Be aware that the spectrum part of Autism Spectrum Disorder is not about how autistic someone is, but is a reflection that our behaviour differences can change in intensity over time.”
If a guest with autism makes a requestduring a visit, be understanding and accommodate their wishes.
Autistic Children are Children First
Like all children, autistic children have unique interests that are always evolving, so do your best to learn these interests, and engage with them. Do consider all senses in play areas, and ask yourself questions like, can the lights be dimmed? Are there nice textures? Is it too loud? And pay special attention to the amount of space there is for children to move and play in. Bruce explains, “Autistic people often have a problem with proprioception, which is the internal sense that tells the brain what the rest of the body is doing in space. This can make us quite clumsy or not be totally aware of where in space our bodies are. I would suggest being careful with steps, and avoid too many object height differences in a playroom.”
Like All Humans, Autistic People Are Unique
Assumptions and misconceptions will cloud your ability to have meaningful relationships with anyone in life, and especially autistic people. Bruce shared this in an effort to curb some common misconceptions: “We feel emotions – often very deeply and often at a deeper level than neurotypical people…Autistics are seen not to show empathy because it doesn’t look the same way as a neurotypical response. It is a two way communication breakdown – we don’t understand some neurotypical behaviour, but more importantly neurotypical people don’t understand our behaviour.”
As well, “Autistic people do struggle with a lot of social communication. We don’t understand the rules inherently, and they need to be learned over and over. This can cause us to be bullied and taken advantage of, quite easily often without realising it is happening. We need help from others in situations like this – friends, families and the general public, to help stop the bullying or to explain to us what is going on.”
Three Rules to Live By
As a final thought, on designing and just generally sharing life with autistic people, Bruce had these clear and simple rules to follow:
- Always assume competency. “For example, if the autistic person is non-speaking, know that they can communicate with you, just in a non-verbal way, and it may take time to learn a different communication modality.”
- Nothing about us without us. “Always include an autistic voice when you are planning to do anything with, or about, an autistic person. Make sure you are not making assumptions about what is best for an autistic person.”
- Just Ask. “Ask us what we need. Ask us what we want. Ask us what we can help you with.”