How to create a sensory chill out space for my autistic child
A sensory chill out space provides kids with an opportunity to attend to their sensory needs in a controlled environment.
Making this sensory space in your home or classroom can help your child to regulate their emotions, then they can return to their activities - allowing them to focus on the rest of the class or session.
Children with ADHD, Autism, or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can easily become overwhelmed with different sounds, lights, and environmental stimuli. This can be especially true for children with Autism (ASD). Children with Autism can often become so overloaded with sensory information that it can cause anxiety, frustration or sometimes even meltdowns.
As parents or teachers, it can sometimes be difficult to give your child the chance to attend to their sensory needs. We’re talking about giving them the opportunity to calm down, before their feelings escalate.
What is a sensory chill out space?
A sensory chill out space is an area that has been created to help autistic children cope with the sensory overload that they face every day. The name might imply that they are reserved for only children who are on the spectrum - but really everyone, especially children, need an opportunity and a place to calm down.
Children with autism often struggle to regulate their sensory needs. One of the biggest challenges facing individuals with autism is sensory processing. Sensory processing is the way we take in information from the world around us and organize and interpret it - and sometimes all kids (and adults) just need a break from the over stimulation. This is why a sensory chill out space is the perfect space to help an autistic child wind down, regulate and relax.
How do I pick the perfect chill out space for my child with Autism?
Look around your home or classroom. You need a place that is visible so you can see them, this is important with our duty of care, but also for practicality. Somewhere within view from the kitchen is always good, as this means you could be cooking dinner with one eye still on them.
A sensory chill out space could be a carpeted area or a padded playmat, with bean bags, a lounger chair, cushions and calming music. You should try to have the lights down, with a systematic approach to reduce stimulation.
Setting up a "chill out" corner or space in your house or the classroom gives children the responsibility and independence to take themselves to the chill out designated area before their emotions escalate in a heightened and negative way. Once there, they can escape the busyness of their surroundings and use the chill out space to regulate their emotions, wind down and receive calming sensory input from its soft furnishings
Why is a sensory chill out space useful in the classroom?
Children with autism often have sensory processing disorder. This means that the way they experience the world through their senses isn’t the same as neurotypical children. Sensory processing disorder affects the way stimuli are interpreted, creating a heightened sensitivity to the senses. This can mean that vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, balance, body awareness, may be heightened.
These conditions can be very frustrating and can cause great anxiety, as well as making learning and concentrating on a task difficult. The best way to help children with sensory processing disorder is to create an environment that promotes a calming situation.
The use of a sensory chill out room or zone is a great way to help children with sensory processing disorder cope with the world around them. A sensory chill out room will allow your child to attend to their sensory needs in a controlled environment.
At times all children need a break from others and overwhelming factors in their environment, such as loud noise, bright lights or lots of people.
Some classrooms (especially the old portables) have bright fluorescent tube lighting. Over the top of your chill out space, try to minimize this lighting the best you can. It might be asking your school to install Incandescent or other more gentle bulbs. The fluorescent tubes often have a space for two bulbs. Ask if you can remove one. You can also get fluorescent light diffusers to cover the bulbs. A quick fix could be to cover it with blue cellophane. Another option is to invest in an enclosed space such as a sensory tent or tee pee.
How To Make A Sensory Chill Out Room in your home
1) Find a designated area
Kids like consistency, especially kids with autism. If they know that they have a specific area to go to this can be calming in itself.
Designate an area in your house that the child can go to when they are feeling overwhelmed or stressed out. Give your child a sensory chill out space to go to that is located in an area of the house that is easily accessible to them.
This can be a designated corner of your living room or a room in the house that they can go to. Make sure that this space is stocked with items that can be visually or physically soothing.
2) Reduce noise
Pick a corner that is not busy or noisy.
Noise is sometimes unavoidable - Therefore you may also find that a sensory lamp can help create a white noise, to block out the loud sounds that can be overpowering.
Ems for Kids ear muffs are a perfect sensory chill out solution for children with autism. They look like a normal pair of headphones, by surrounding sound is blocked out by ear muffs that are nice and soft. The soft earmuffs are much more comfortable than foam earplugs which can be uncomfortable for some children.
3) Dimly lit space
A softly lit space is a more relaxing environment for children with autism. This is because bright lights can cause overstimulation of the nervous system. So pick somewhere that is not too bright.
Try using shades over the windows, a teepee or tent to go inside or a calming lamp. It is a good idea to remove distractions from the room.
If you don’t have a tent, a few sheets or blankets is an easy trick.
4) Include Blues and Greens
Did you know that blue and green are colours that are calming? Including these colours into your sensory chill out space can help relieve stress and overstimulation. They promote relaxation and tranquility.
That’s why a lot of our products are available in blue such as the Mellow Mat.
5) Minimal items
Make sure the area is not overwhelming with too much ‘stuff’. Clutter and too many items can also overwhelm the senses.
If you have lots of sensory items, or your child gets bored of things - try rotating them in and out of the sensory chill out space. You don’t need to keep all of your sensory items in one space.
What items should go into a sensory chill out space for children with Autism?
Not all children will like the same sensory items. In fact, there is a good chance that your child will like sensory items that you might not even consider. We have come up with a list of items that you could consider, but as we know, all children are different.
1) A soft and sensory area to sit
A nice soft place to sit is important. Sometimes kids with autism are highly sensitive to touch and fabrics. They will be less inclined to relax on an itchy woolen carpet.
Some options include:
- Our Mellow Mat which has a memory foam rebound and provides the perfect base for your sensory chill out space.
- Cushions from around the house. In my home we have too many cushions! So relocate some to your chill out space.
- Some old pillows. We should change our pillows every couple of years - so why not put the old ones to good use and home them in your chill out space?
- A Henlee Vegan Leather Sensory Lounger Chair- Not only do they feel good, but they look great. They are Australian designed sensory decor, and are the comfiest bean bag chair to sit on!
- Inflatable peapod - PeaPod Inflatable Sensory Cushion - can give your child a safe place to wind down in. It is great for reading a book in, rocking gently side to side in or lying down in, providing light therapeutic pressure.
- A bean bag - they can create a soothing sense of security.
2) A sensory tunnel
Tunnels can promote a sense of calm, as they create a small, dark, safe space.
- Our Zoomy Leisure Sensory Play Couch is the best! They grow and change with your child. Children can move the cushions into a tunnel or fort -creating their own ‘safe space’.
- Blankets and sheets. Use two Midi Mod sensory chairs to cover with a sheet. This can create the perfect tunnel or 'cubby'.
3) Quiet activities
A couple of quiet activities or things to touch or hold. You don’t need lots as clutter can cause stress, so rotate activities every couple of weeks.
- Some books to read quietly
- Fidget toys such as the water orb ball to squish or play with
- A weighted toy to cuddle and hold
4) Weighted items
Weighted items can help to calm a frustrated or anxious child. They provide deep pressure stimulation, similar to that of a hug, so they help with a feeling of security.
5) Calming images
Certain pictures of places, patterns, certain colors or textures can make us feel relaxed and happy. But these are different for everyone.
Work out which pictures calm your child, so you know which ones to include in their sensory chill out space. Do this when they are in a happy and calm mood.
Try showing them a broad range of images from family holidays, different places, people, animals and colours. Look closely at your child whilst doing this and see which one invokes a smile, or relaxed look on their face.
- You may like to place calming images on the wall of their sensory chill space
- A set of emotions cards are great to have on hand. Your child can look at and work through while in the space. Try our Creative Sprout Emotions cards for kids.
- Print out some photographs of calming places like the beach, a field or some of their favourite fluffy animals. Remember textures matter. So getting photos printed in a nice thick matt finish can be nice for them to touch.
The perfect sensory chill out space for my child with autism.
As we know little people have big feelings. No matter what their nature or age, every child will encounter a time at some stage or another where they experience overwhelming feelings and emotions.
Learning how to self regulate one's emotions is a life long learning process, which can be started in a healthy and positive way during childhood.
By providing your child with a safe place to "wind down" and escape, your child is given the space to regulate their feelings and calm down.
By minimising distractions and over stimulation from the environment, the safe chill out zone will also help equalize and calm down their nervous system. This in turn will lead to a happier, calmer child and will reduce the likelihood of tantrums and meltdowns.
Sarah and Gemma
Sarah from the Sensory Specialist is a qualified Melbourne psychology teacher and mother of two boys. This article was co-written with Gem Black, teacher and mother of two. Between them they had quite a few well trialed tips to share. But, there is always room for improvement - Have we left anything out of our chill out space? We would love your input if you have any tips or tricks on sensory chill out spaces for children with autism. Email us with any questions or suggestions you may have.