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The Impact of Environments on Autism: 5 Tips for Parents

While it may not be the first thing you consider when addressing the needs of someone on the spectrum, parents and caregivers should always remember the impact of environments on autism. A safe and supportive environment is crucial for a child’s development, especially when structured to meet their needs. As sensory-related concerns and social difficulties are common among children on the spectrum, providing them with a nurturing space that caters to these challenges goes a long way in their ability to overcome them as they grow.

ABA Centers of Florida has always prioritized an accommodating environment in our ABA therapy services – from the design and layout of our clinic spaces to hosting various sensory-friendly events for our clients. We understand the huge role environment plays in a child’s development and wish all parents and caregivers could create the same unique situations in a child’s home life. Here are some tips to remember when addressing sensory-related concerns outside of ABA therapy and why these accommodations are essential for development.

What is the Impact of Environments on Autism?

The best way to understand the impact of environments on autism is by analyzing the various sensory-related challenges individuals on the spectrum may face on any given day. Sensory concerns can impact all five of an individual’s senses and bring forth unique challenges. People with autism may have difficulties processing everyday sensory information and can display hypersensitivity (over-reactiveness) or hyposensitivity (under-reactiveness) to sensory inputs. These responses may fluctuate from one day to the next with no rhyme or reason.

Extreme sensitivity to sensory inputs may lead someone with autism to display actions such as:

  • Unusual sensory-seeking behavior, such as smelling objects or fixating on moving objects
  • Self-stimulatory behaviors such as flapping hands, tapping their heads, bouncing, and other abnormal bodily movements
  • Unusual avoidance behaviors, such as fleeing from normal sounds and textures
  • Engage intensely with a preferred sensation, even if it may cause danger
  • A meltdown or temper tantrum

“Stimming” is another common response to sensory-related challenges. Individuals on the spectrum showcase these behaviors to help regulate their sensory environment. While stimming varies from person to person, some of the common forms include:

  • Rocking body back and forth while sitting or standing
  • Hand-flapping, finger-flicking, and other abnormal mannerisms with hands
  • Repetitive behaviors such as opening and closing doors or flicking light switches
  • Chewing and mouthing objects
  • Over-fixation on something, such as a song or visual pattern

What is the Modification of an Environment?

Many intervention strategies for sensory processing difficulties exist, but the most effective and accessible is modifying the environment. This process involves the assessment of a child’s sensory challenges and reactions to various stimuli and modifying these environments to counteract associated difficulties. Whether it’s dimming lights, reducing background noise, or having a plan in place if undesired reactions arise, these changes significantly help a child with their sensory response and allow them to feel comfortable in otherwise stressful situations.

While modifying an environment is standard practice in ABA therapy and other autism-related services, the process can be challenging for parents and caregivers unfamiliar with the proper tactics for intervention. Since an autism-friendly environment can greatly reduce undesired reactions, we highly advise considering these tips when modifying an environment, such as at home or during a trip outdoors.

Tips for Modifying an Environment

1. Adjusting Physical Space – This strategy works best indoors but can also work outdoors. The main focus of this intervention is to reduce distractions by any means necessary. Some ideas to do so include:

  • Ensuring lights do not flicker or decrease in intensity with a cloth or other object
  • Covering windows to avoid distractions
  • Refraining from using pungent fragrances when interacting with a neurodivergent child
  • Maintaining a pleasurable temperature (not too hot or too cold)
  • Placing a sound-lowering cover or device on objects that can produce large amounts of sound output
  • Avoiding unnecessary visuals such as posters, signs, wall objects, and clutter
  • Designating specific areas for certain activities, such as separating learning areas from social/play areas

2. Utilizing Objects to Meet Tactile Needs – In situations where you cannot alter the physical environment to meet the needs of a neurodivergent individual, you can still consider using objects that can limit sensory processing difficulties. For example, if your child enters an environment where they can’t avoid loud noises, consider bringing a set of headphones to play calming music or a hooded sweatshirt to block out some of the sounds. Weighted blankets, wiggle cushions, and other sensory objects also work well in stressful environments as a means of comfort. When using any object of this nature, the main goal is to lessen disruptions that may impact their learning or ability to acquire new skills.

3. Staying Consistent With Modifications – When modifying an environment, it’s important to remain consistent with any changes or alterations. If you choose to change the layout of a house or play area one day and fail to make the same changes another day, it may cause further sensory issues and confusion within the individual.

This consistency also comes into play between therapy and at-home environments. If a child is in ABA therapy or another service, we recommend convening with the clinician or therapist and learning what kind of sensory modifications they use for your child. That way, you can incorporate these strategies at home so your child can acclimate to both environments without unnecessary stress when switching between them.

4. Using Positive Reinforcement – Widely considered the most common method for treating children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), especially in ABA therapy, positive reinforcement utilizes rewards and incentives to motivate children to act in a socially-appropriate manner while avoiding problematic behaviors. These rewards can include anything that incentivizes your child to respond positively in challenging situations or environments, whether a toy, activity, or verbal praise.

For example, if your child completes a trip to the grocery store without problematic behaviors, you may allow them to watch their favorite show when they get home. Positive reinforcement works at its best once a parent identifies an object their child particularly enjoys. These can change dramatically between two individuals, but once a child hones in on what they want as a reward, it becomes much easier to supply this frequently when they display positive behaviors.

5. Taking Advantage of Sensory-Friendly Events – Movie theaters, arcades, amusement parks, museums, etc. – these locations all present various sensory processing challenges to those with ASD. However, many places host sensory-friendly events to accommodate these concerns by dimming lights, lowering music, and restricting capacity levels; many are also admission free. Check out our recent blog that discusses some of these events and where you can find them in South Florida!

Give Your Child the Sensory Help They Need with ABA Therapy

At ABA Centers of Florida, we aim to provide all the tools necessary to make life easier for you and your child. ABA therapy is a proven methodology for identifying and treating sensory-related concerns. We take the time to ensure that all of our clinics provide a safe and comforting environment, no matter the challenge.

For more information about how ABA therapy can benefit your child\’s development, contact us at (772) 773-1975.

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