A new report by NDTI has set out guidance which considers the sensory needs of autistic people in housing. The report aims to change the approach to autism and promote an understanding of the condition as a sensory processing difference rather than a behavioural disorder.

The research undertaken by the NDTI states that as most autistic people have significant sensory differences compared to neurotypicals, they can become easily overwhelmed by noises, smells, patterns, colours, textures and tastes.

Environments which cause a sensory overload can lead to a crisis and a display of extreme behaviour, such as a meltdown or a withdrawal of communication. An appropriate home environment is therefore crucial to the wellbeing of autistic people and can vastly improve their quality of life.

The new research sets out to guide teams on how to consider sight, sound, smell, and touch, when designing or commissioning spaces. The report emphasises the importance of focusing on the individual as senses can be experienced differently depending on the person. It therefore encourages asking the person tailored questions which will help them to discover what would work best for them.

Considering sound, sight, smell and touch

Sound

Many neurotypical people can ‘block out’ noise, but some autistic people struggle to do this and hear every sound. This includes things that may not be audible to others, such as outside noises, like cars and aeroplanes; voices or noise from other rooms; water in pipes and electricity in the walls.

The NDTI lay out various suggestions in which houses can be built or adjusted to dampen noises and cause less disturbance, such as:

• Use of soft furnishings (carpet, curtains and furniture) to absorb noise
• Use of Velcro pads, door silencers, or kitchen cabinet door buffers to reduce noise of doors opening and closing
• Removing ticking clocks and providing separate switches for things like extractor fans
• Reducing noises from electrical appliances, heating and water pipes
• If living in a shared house, there should be set times for using appliances such as the washing machine, tumble dryer and dishwasher.

Sight

Visual stimulation can be a source of comfort and joy for autistic people, however, it can also lead to sensory overload. For this reason, housing for autistic people must be designed in a way that promotes feelings of calm and peace.

How this takes form will be different for everyone, but there are some general principles which should guide designers and commissioners. This includes: avoiding bright colours and instead opting for neutral, natural colours; minimising clutter; avoiding busy patterns on floors, carpets or soft furnishings; limiting use of posters, postcards or quotes; and ensuring the light is right (i.e. no flickering bulbs or direct lighting and ensuring the light can be controlled with blackout blinds or curtains).

Touch

Too many textures, as well as a sudden change in temperature or pressure, can also be overwhelming for autistic people. The report therefore suggests focusing on the textures of soft furnishings within the home, such as: bedding, carpets and rugs, mattresses and pillows, door handles, and furniture.

These furnishings should be made from soft, quiet materials. Temperatures should also be controlled where possible to avoid shock, for example, using wooden or plastic door handles rather than metal.

Smell

Smells in the home can be tricky to control, but it is an important aspect to consider. The researchers suggest that wherever possible, adjustments should be made to limit the presence of strong smells. This includes avoiding strong-smelling household items such as cleaning products, paint, laundry powder, and perfumes. Designers should also consider how they can limit the spread of household smells, such as cooking odours.

Open plan living arrangements will therefore be generally unsuitable, as there should always be a way to close off areas and contain odours; this includes ensuring smells from the outside cannot easily enter the house. 

“A sanctuary from the outside world”

Contributors to the paper mentioned various other ideas that would help them to feel happy, safe, and secure at home. The main themes that arose were: a need for outside space, including access to a garden as well as other natural environments; an area to carry out activities and pursue interests and hobbies; a clean and tidy communal area; and allowing pets which can help with sensory issues and meltdowns.

A contributor to the report, Rachel, explains that a focus on these issues is key to improving quality of life for autistic people. She said: “The most important thing about autistic housing is to note that it’s a sanctuary from the outside world. Being outside means exposure to all sorts of sensory assault, especially in places shared with other people.

“Home needs to be the place where we can relax, unwind and work off that stress. Home also needs not to cause stress so it needs to be easily navigated, offer protection from sensory stimuli and where wanted, exposure to agreeable sensory stimuli. Home needs to aid those of us with significant issues in executive dysfunction and give us scope to be creative."