Like parents, children on the spectrum have had to adjust to COVID-19 regulations. Here are some tips for creating a home environment that supports your child’s development.
We all know there’s no such thing as a “perfect environment”. But there is an optimum, and it is our goal to create it—not just for us, but more so for our children on the autism spectrum. It’s a common fact that many children with autism struggle with sensory input; especially in today’s overwhelming world of sights, sounds, and smells. The chaos that surrounds us, not only due to the pandemic but also the speed of transitions and change in life, has placed us all in a constant state of feeling alert and alarmed. Lately, you’re more likely to see advertisements for mindfulness, yoga retreats, and the benefits of meditation than car advertisements.
We’ve compiled a list of research-based strategies we’ve found most useful for our children on the spectrum—as a “close to” perfect environment. These strategies offer some calming techniques, structure, and predictability in their day. For children with autism, these strategies may silence the noises and create manageable and reachable expectations.
10 tips for a “close to” perfect environment for your ASD child
- Calming background music: Through extensive research at AIMS Global with adults and children on the spectrum, we’ve realized the importance of a relaxed atmosphere in the home. We understand it’s not always possible to have gentle background music playing, but we’ve seen the difference it can make. Not all music works for all children, of course, and some children might not want any music playing. It’s important to try various sounds and keep track of your child’s mood and affinity towards a specific type or genre of music.
- Pleasant smells: I also believe this is universally true—if something smells nice, it makes you smile. Our children don’t enjoy overpowering smells, so instead try out some pure essential oils. Oils like lavender or chamomile promote relaxation, and peppermint or cedarwood increase focus and attention. This is also an excellent time to work on mindfulness activities. Play games with your child, like trying to guess what you’re smelling to bring his/her attention to the present moment and to encourage awareness of his/her surroundings and sensory input within these environments.
- Visual schedules: I cannot stress the importance of visual schedules enough; use them at home to plan your child’s entire day. It can start with a simple “first ____, then ____” visual and move to a weekly planner later. The reason I recommend including a daily schedule is it teaches your child about organizing, planning, and prioritizing, which are all important concepts to work on. It also helps to calm your child down during any transition—from going from one activity to the next or from one environment to another. If there’s only one thing you remember from this article, let it be a visual schedule.
- Visual choice boards: this is another excellent strategy to decrease possible challenging behaviors and increase functional communication. I would usually advise our parents to have various visual choice boards throughout the house—one for the kitchen to request snacks, one in the sensory room to request specific input, and one where all your child’s toys are kept. We do not require our children to follow up with a verbal request if they look at the picture of the activity or item they require. It should really be an easy way for your child to quickly request what they want and then get it. We have a short video to help explain this and create a visual choice board under five minutes. Have a look at this link: Pretty’s DIY video: how to make a visual choice board.
- Low arousal tone: I totally understand this one is easier said than done, but trust me—it makes an enormous impact on the entire home if you can keep your tone of voice calmer than usual when your child is exhibiting any anxiety (or similar emotions). The more hyper they become, the more relaxed you should (try to) be and sound. It will immediately help your child to start the process of calming his/her sensory system if there’s a constant feeling of someone he/she trusts being calm around him/her. Even though we have children who will laugh or run when they are “acting out”, we usually recognize many of these behaviors as anxiety levels increasing and thus, it is important to show your child you are in control of your feelings and emotions and “there” for your child.
- Transition cues: Another important strategy to remember and be consistent with is to remind your child when a change is inevitable. This change can be merely going from one activity to another, such as interrupting a game to have a snack break. Make sure your child has time to process the upcoming change as this will provide him/her time to prepare. Although it might be second nature for us to manage sudden changes, we have to remember that a change of activity brings about a change of sensory input, the emotions that go along with this and leaving a potential preferred activity or special interest. You can include your “first, then” schedule before a transition as well as a timer (if your child does not become anxious with a “countdown” of sorts).
- Visual clutter: Just like most people, your child will also function and act calmer if there are areas in your home that are clear of visual clutter. We usually suggest having specific “corners” for play activities and other areas that are specific for having a snack or lunch. There should not be too many visual distractions, such as random posters on the walls (of course, having your child’s favorite characters in their room is a must). A great resource is to look at various Montessori classroom strategies and designs. You can take a look at this link to get some great ideas: Some Montessori classroom designs.
- Chill space: I remember when I was a child, I asked my mom if I could go “camping”. She would then create a camping experience by pulling up a tent and placing all the pillows we had in the house into it. I absolutely loved going “camping” as I felt safe and calm in my special space. We ask our parents to create a “chill space” for all our children. It should have some of their sensory toys that they love and soft blankets or pillows. It is a time and space for them to feel completely relaxed, with no expectations placed on them and yes, they are allowed to engage in self-stimulatory behaviors when they are in their “chill space”. Try it, I think your child (and you) will love this idea.
- Movement breaks: According to the research we did, we realized that we all need movement breaks throughout the day to sustain our attention (and interest). I suggest parents provide fun movement activities to their children every 15-20 minutes. This might seem like it is a lot of movement, but it can be as simple as a quick massage you give your child or a “let’s roll in the blanket to the garden” when they have been sitting for a while. It makes it even more special if you can join in the activities, which usually leads to a “brain break” for you and your child.
- Sincere social praise: The emphasis here really is on “sincere”. I’ve trained in various forms of therapy through the years, but one thing is for sure, I’ve learned that providing over-the-top “GOOD JOB” with a cookie as a reward for certain behaviors can do more harm than good. Our children are excellent judges of characters and they know when they are being “reinforced” in an unnatural way. I strongly believe in sincere, natural praise that will truly show your child you are proud of him or her. Some of our children love loud cheering, but I would suggest providing a variety of praises—this also includes at times not placing “demands” on them every single hour. They are, after all, children, who love to have fun and “chill”.
Speaking of relaxing – I believe it is time for a well-deserved movement break for all of us.
Enjoy implementing the strategies that you find useful and thank you for being the best advocates for your children!
This was featured in Issue 120 – Epilepsy: High Risk for ASD Kids