How to build a sensory space at home

Around 95% of children with autism display some degree of tactile, auditory or visual sensory processing dysfunction.1,2,3 The effects of such dysfunctions result in some level of over- or under-stimulation from clothing, light, sounds, pictures, music, etc., and have the potential to affect daily life and activities for a number of ASD youth.3,4 Sensory rooms/spaces serve as a safe place for children on the spectrum to retreat when their senses are overloaded. Even more, they can serve as a low-stress, fun, interactive environment for individuals to play and learn management techniques for their sensory processing difficulties.5

Before the waves of COVID-19 tossed us all into the corners of our homes, children on the spectrum had access to sensory spaces in public areas, schools, and even airports.6 However, as family mobility has hit an all-time low during lockdown, anxieties and meltdowns are on the rise due to constant changes in routines, schooling, and physical boundaries.7 The need for sensory spaces in the home has never been greater and, although it may seem a daunting task, creating a sensory space on a budget could be within your reach. Before you get started, here a few things you should ask yourself.

Who?

Who will be using this space? Are you designing for one child or will it be a shared room? Think about which senses and textures your child responds to positively or negatively. What specific sensory issues do they need to learn how to manage? The space should be tailored to your child specifically. There is no “one-size fits all” when it comes to children and sensory spaces.

Where? 

The term “sensory room” can seem scary if limited space doesn’t allow you to redecorate an entire room. However, if you have a closet, corner, wall, old table top, wooden board, or a sturdy box laying around, consider yourself sorted for space.8 Your child’s sensory haven can be as large or as small as your budget/space. If you end up creating a sensory corner, you can hang old, solid-color sheets so it feels more like a personal space for your kids. 

What can I make on a budget?

After you have an idea of your space and issues your child struggles with most, it’s time to figure out what you can create on a budget. Before you whip out your credit card, think about alternative ways to make or purchase the things you want. Simple projects to make the sensory spaces can be a fun weekend activity with your kids and can save you a fair chunk of change as well. For example:

  • Instead of a pricey swing or trampoline, you can use an exercise ball or a DIY crash pad made with a duvet cover and pillows, stuffed animals, blankets, etc.9 Make sure it’s soft and thick enough for safety before your kids get crashing and cuddling!
  • sensory board or wall made with fabrics, beads, and other budget items are great for tactile-seeking children.10,11 You can also hang old necklaces or ribbons on a wall or board for the same effect. 
  • An old mp3 or CD player and a pair of old laptop speakers from your local thrift shop will get the sound job done. Cheap Bluetooth speakers are available online and in most shops.12 An old laptop works well too, especially if it has a desktop media player with calming, colorful visuals that move to the beat of the track.13 If all else fails, you can just make a playlist on your smartphone and let it go. Sound is sound and it doesn’t always need to come from something fancy. 
  • For lighting, you can use a colorful LAVA Lamp or make your own light table.14,15 Christmas lights are another easy addition that can add character and calm to a sensory space. 
  • Therapeutic smells are great for kids who respond to olfactory senses. For your budget space, mixing essential oil and water in a spritzer bottle and spraying the area like you would with any air freshener is an easy way to add some scents. You can also make your own scented play dough to care for olfactory and tactile senses simultaneously.16 

These are just a few ideas for your budget sensory spaces. Keep searching the web for more advice on how to create your own sensory room or space without breaking the bank. The world is your oyster, go forth and sense well!

Hints for your sensory haven:

Endnotes
[1] American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, pages 190-200 (2007)
[2] Pediatric Research, 69, pages 48-54 (2011)
[3] Archives for Psychiatry and Nervous Diseases, 17, pages 76-136 (1944)
[4] Star InstituteAbout SPD
[5] Enablingdevices.com (2019)
[6] Parenting Special Needs Magazine (2019)
[7] Spectrum ViewpointHow to help autistic children cope with pandemic lockdowns (2020)
[8] Learningandexploringthroughplay.com (2016)
[9] Kidsactivities.com (2015)
[10] Etsy.com
[11] The Chaos and the Clutter Blog
[12] Tomsguide.com
[13] Especialneeds.com – Creating a sensory room on a budget (2014)
[14] Lavalamp.com
[15] Sensorytheraplaybox.wordpress.com (2016)
[16] Hellogiggles.com (2017)

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