Creating a Calmer Home for Your Child on the Autism Spectrum

Teenage girl wearing headphones with eyes closedManaging autism in your home can be immensely challenging. Having worked with people on the spectrum in therapeutic settings, and in 18 years of parenting a person with autism, I’ve learned some things help make for a calmer environment. Because autism spectrum issues affect almost every area of daily life, thinking ahead and planning for certain needs is essential.

Many people on the spectrum have difficulty processing sensory experiences. I’ve heard some individuals describe it as if the sound and lights were “turned way up.” The bombardment of sensory stimulation coming from even an average living room can be overwhelming.

If you’re raising a child on the spectrum, the hope is your child will develop awareness of these issues over time and adjust accordingly. For example, my son understands that when the noise in the house is too much—the dog is barking, Dad has the game turned up, etc.—he has noise-canceling headphones he can put on. It took only a few times of handing him the headphones, after seeing him cover his ears or scrunch up his face, before he started requesting them.

We keep several sets of headphones around the house, usually hanging on hooks so he can access them quickly, and we never leave the house without them. They can be purchased for anywhere from $10 to $40, depending on how much sound you want to drown out. I prefer the lower-end models not only because they’re easier on the wallet, but because they allow our son to hear people talking around him while blocking out louder noises and higher pitches.

Another sensory tip that is simple, but also easy to forget, is to mute the television when asking your child a question. Be sure to give a warning, such as, “I have something to ask you, so I’m going to mute this for a minute.” Letting your child in on what’s going to happen before it happens is key in all situations. Not knowing what to expect typically creates a great deal of stress and anxiety for someone on the spectrum.

Be aware of the lighting, too. Fluorescent lights, I’ve been told by people on the spectrum, may emit a high-pitched sound that most people don’t notice or pay attention to. They also may flicker. It can be very annoying to a person with autism, and unfortunately such lights are prominent in places such as grocery stores and schools.

Letting your child in on what’s going to happen before it happens is key in all situations. Not knowing what to expect typically creates a great deal of stress and anxiety for someone on the spectrum.

Another way to reduce uncertainty and promote calm is to use visuals. When my son was younger, I avoided too many visuals for fear he would become dependent on them. Since it was my goal to help him learn to speak, I feared the visuals would become a crutch. However, my experience has shown the opposite to be true. Visuals not only help many people to process the info, but to do so in a way that makes it easier for them to respond, even verbally.

You don’t need complicated visuals for this to work. iPads and other tablets have made it easier than ever to give your child picture choices. Several apps allow you to make choice boards with pictures and words.

When my son was younger, I took photographs of things around the house, laminated them (with packing tape; no fancy laminators needed), and stuck magnets to the back. When he would wander around, not sure what to do with himself, I’d bring him to the refrigerator where he could view pictures of things he liked to occupy himself with, such as Legos, art supplies, and the trampoline in our backyard. Then I would ask what activity he wanted to do, and he could choose it much easier and with much less stress than he would have had I asked, “What do you want to do?”

Today, we’ve graduated to a simpler method of dry-erase boards. This is a great alternative for kids who can read. Small, magnetic ones may be found at the nearest dollar store. We’ve even gotten his doctor to keep one in her office to increase her ability to communicate with him.

Here’s an example of how we use it: My son was recently sick but couldn’t tell me what was wrong. So his doctor and I took the board and created dividing lines, as if it was a window pane. Then, in the quadrants, she wrote “head,” “tummy,” “ear,” and “other.” Then she asked, “Where does it hurt?” and read the four choices. It’s important, no matter how many options you give, to make sure one is “other” or “something else.” Often if given choices, kids think they have to pick one, even if it doesn’t really fit. It took us two rounds of choices after he chose “other”; turns out it was his nose. He had a piece of crayon stuck in it. But that’s a story for another article.

Do you have other suggestions for creating more calm for someone on the autism spectrum? Please share your ideas below.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Garrison

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:12 AM

    It can be hard, you know, when you have multiple children and they all have different needs. Some need calm and scheduled while the other might be more fly by the seat of your pants. It can be quite the challenge to most families to find that perfect balance that can keep everyone motivated and engaged, not to mention happy most of the time!

  • janeen

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    Garrison, I couldn’t agree more. That balance is difficult.

  • Maret

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:34 AM

    TV is off limits in my house most of the time, and mainly because it is such a distraction to the things that we generally want to get accomplished there.
    I am not saying that it is always the most popular decision, but most of the time it works.

  • janeen

    February 23rd, 2016 at 1:45 PM

    Maret, great idea. TV has become background noise in so many houses. I love the idea of turning it off.

  • emery S

    February 23rd, 2016 at 2:03 PM

    My brother has autism so we are pretty much aware there are certain things that we can do when he’s home and then when he isn’t home because he is very sensitive to both light and loud noise. Did I think that It was an inconvenience when I was younger? Yeah it kinda was. But this is my kid brother and my parents, so whatever we can do now to make their lives a little easier we try to do it.

  • Myddie P

    February 24th, 2016 at 7:27 AM

    Routines are always good for the autistic student.

  • montel

    February 24th, 2016 at 11:17 AM

    There are some families who will do better at this than others do. I think that for the family that is already a little more on the structured side then it will be less of a challenge for them than it would be for those who are usually more fly by the seat of their pants. That is the home that would have to face the most challenges and changes overall.

  • Jessie

    February 24th, 2016 at 2:39 PM

    Thank you so much for this information. I am a counselor, and I am currently treating an elderly gentleman who was recently diagnosed on the spectrum and his caregivers are having difficulty knowing how to communicate with him effectively. I think the tip on visual cues for activity choices will work great for him!

  • janeen

    February 24th, 2016 at 6:14 PM

    Emery, thank you so much for sharing! Your family is very lucky to have your perspective and kindness.

  • janeen

    February 24th, 2016 at 6:15 PM

    Myddie, excellent point. I’ve found that to be true as well.

  • janeen

    February 24th, 2016 at 6:17 PM

    Montel, great point. Our family is a mixture of both, which has it’s challenges and benefits. Thanks for your input!

  • janeen

    February 24th, 2016 at 6:19 PM

    Jessie, thanks for letting me know- that made my day! I’m so glad you found it helpful. Kudos to you for helping this gentleman. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help you.

  • Reed

    February 25th, 2016 at 10:02 AM

    I am only asking this because I honestly do not know the answer- would there ever be a time where you would not change your way of doing things in the hopes that the child could then conform to what is the reality of the home? I know that that in some ways seems mean but I am not a parent and have no experience with this at all so I am just curious if there are people who thinks that this is what works best or is it always necessary to meet the child at what is comfortable for them at this moment and not change things?

  • Laura

    February 25th, 2016 at 3:06 PM

    I found the information very helpful and applicable. The way it was written also was great since there were examples given. Thanks!

  • janeen

    February 26th, 2016 at 7:26 AM

    Laura, thank you so much for the feedback and kind words! I appreciate it, and am glad you found it helpful.

  • janeen

    February 26th, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    Reed, what a great question! I view autism spectrum issues the same I way I would view any other limited ability, such as blindness or someone in a wheelchair. It all depends on the individual and what kind of help they need. For example, I wouldn’t require my child who uses a wheelchair to climb a flight of stairs, but if I were helping them learn to walk again, I might encourage a few steps at a time with assistance. With autism, if the child has a great deal of difficulty with loud noises or bright lights, exposing him to them isn’t going to solve the problem. Giving them tools to cope is a better and more respectful option. Having them conform to the reality of the home is necessary but needs to be balanced with empathy and the understanding of how difficult sensory overload can be. For example, my son doesn’t like it when he can hear music coming from his sister’s room. I want to respect his needs but also realize he can’t dictate the activity of others. So we’ve taught him how to use his own headphones to drown out any sounds that bother him. Sometimes he just needs to be reminded that if he goes into another room, he won’t hear it. At the same time, my daughter is learning to keep her music to a reasonable volume. It’s a balance of creating a “new normal” that fits with your family and teaching the child how to navigate the world around them without being the center of it. And this usually takes time and patience.

  • Reed

    February 26th, 2016 at 11:31 AM

    Thanks for explaining that so well to me Janeen. I was really thinking that I was gonna get pounced on for that one and I really did not mean anything negative by it.

  • Kev

    February 27th, 2016 at 8:18 AM

    For me the very ideal of a happy home is a calm home so I am certainly on the same page with that suggestion!
    I am not all about the chaos

  • esther y

    February 28th, 2016 at 7:30 AM

    Using little white noise machines all throughout the house has worked for us. It allows the person who needs a little peace and quiet to retreat into their own space and sort of drown out the rest of the activity in the house while not forcing the rest of us to change what we are doing.

    It was a little bit of an expense at first but we are all pretty rambunctious at home and it was just the thing for us to get some quiet time when we needed it without expecting everyone else to bend and do the same thing that we wanted.

  • janeen

    February 28th, 2016 at 11:32 AM

    Esther, what a fabulous idea! Thanks for sharing it.
    and Kev, I couldn’t agree more! :)

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