Experience Autism in videos
There is often much discussion about how to attend to young autistic children's needs. Those needs do not diminish as we become better able to control our own emotional state. Many adults on the spectrum assume that because they can tolerate things uncomfortable to them, they SHOULD, even if that means they are completely wiped out at the end of their day due to sensory stresses. This is called "autistic burnout" for those of you new to the verbiage! I used to do this until I realized that I didn't have to. I'm not a failure of an adult because I take care to attend to my sensory needs. I'm a more capable adult when I attend to my sensory needs.
The following are some common supportive environmental characteristics for individuals with ASD as written about by Claire Vogel and adapted for adults.
1. A Flexible and Adaptable environment that can be adjusted to meet the needs of the individual in the moment. I have all my lights on dimmer switches so that when I am feeling anxious, I can turn the light on super bright to make me feel more expansive of spirit and when I'm feeling overwhelmed by everything, I can turn the lights down low so that I get less visual sensory input. Furniture that is multi-purpose and can be used for different things and activities. For example, I have a large poof chair that I can curl up in to read a book, watch TV, or smoosh flat to take a nap in!
2. Non-Threatening environments that feel welcoming and safe to be yourself. Soothing textures and sounds or bright vibrant "happy" colors can make a big difference to some of us who are extremely tuned in to sensory input. The house I live in originally had dark grey walls and I hated the whole house until I pained it buttermilk yellow. This shift (which is totally unnoticeable to my husband) makes all the difference from the house feeling like a prison to it being a welcoming happy place. Water fountains provide soothing sensory input that can calm and center, serving as a focal point.
3. A non-distracting space is important for us to be able to function at our best. We only have so much "bandwidth" of things that we can think about and focus on at any given moment, and some of us have bandwidth unwittingly taken up by the music on a neighbor's earbuds, a cell phone vibrating in a backpack, or lights being too dim to see into corners. Everyone has different sensory needs and foci, and environments should be structured to each individuals needs, avoiding strong scents like perfumes and colognes, distracting noises like the ticking of a clock or whirring of fans and heaters, visual stimulation like working across from a window with cars constantly passing by, and disorganization leaving items in the visual range that could distract.
4. Predictability is another keys to supportive environments. Most individuals on the spectrum are sensitive to routines and feel grounded and safe when they know what to expect and can prepare themselves to meet their expectations. I love a detailed syllabus for my classes, my morning routine is sacred, and knowing how people are likely to react to different approaches makes me more confident to speak up. Our environments should be the same - knowing what functions different areas serve, having logical storage and organization of like items, and visual schedules like calendars.
5. Control of our environments can help many autistic individuals. For example, including transition spaces between public and private places can be as simple as having a foot bench in your entry way to take off your shoes and take a moment to switch gears from being outside to inside. Many adults with ASD enjoy having a space they can enclose themselves - a tight hug from a housemate, putting your coat in a closet and stepping inside for a moment, or leaning against a wall are all ways people accommodate these desires in a rather typical manner.
6. Having a sensory-motor attuned space is very important. Find ways that the individual you are working with can orient and center themselves. For some, a fidget spinner works wonders, for others it is having their music running in one earbud during lectures. Everyone has different sensory needs and everyone will need different accommodations. I have a calm-down spot filled with pillows and blankets under my stairs that we use when overstimulated (or for naps). I thrive in bright colors and have the wall facing my desk filled with greeting cards. For some people, this would be very distracting, but for me I find it grounding.
7. This should go without saying, but the best environments are also safe. As an adult with autism myself, I will share that I am exceptionally clumsy because I get distracted thinking about things or noticing a color scheme I hadn't seen before and walk into a table. I have bruises all over my legs because of this. Having furniture arranged in a manner to prevent accidents and allow free and safe stimming (a reaction many of us have to stimulus - good OR bad) in important. Emotional safety is important as well. Many of us do not set appropriate boundaries in our personal relationships and can be taken advantage of. Small places just for the individual can bring a sense of safety as well, such as my "calm-down spot" under my stairs.
8. For myself, having a non-institutional space makes me feel much more comfortable. A warm and inviting space where individuals can truly feel like they are at home and feel safe to be their authentic selves opens hearts and minds to their fullest ability.
It's important to note that each individual will have their own ideas, feelings, and needs. Listen to yourself. I am 37 years old and it took me this long to realize that I didn't have to hug people if they were wearing perfume - I could just say I was sensitive to perfume and give them a high-5. Do what works for you. Be kind to yourself. The world is not designed for people like us, so it's up to us to design our world so we can be our best.
For more information on creating structured environments for adult autistic learners, feel free to click the following links:
Davies, S. (2017). A Helpful Guide to Creating an Environment that is Autism-Friendly. AutismMag.org. - geared towards children, but the ideas hold true for adults as well.
Matusiak, M. (2020). How to Create an Autism-Friendly Environment. Living Autism. - a great article on all the senses and how they can effect those with autism and how to adjust environments accordingly.
Pinkerton, B. (2022). Internet Safety Guide for People With Autism.
Sommer, V. (2020). Ten Ways to Create an Autism-Friendly Work Environment. Full Fabric: Education Blog.
Vogel, C. (2008). Classroom Design for Living and Learning with Autism. Autism Asperger's Digest May/June 2008.
To secure assistance to make your school or business more autism-friendly, please contact one of the following organizations:
The Autism Society. (2020). Are You an Autism Friendly Business? The Autism Society: Community Inclusion
IBCCES. (2020). Certified Autism Center: Attract and Better Serve the Fastest Growing Segment of the Market