Autistic Habitat – 3 Challenges

Last week, I came across a post about classroom and home design for autistic children.

SMArtichnun – Anatomy of an Autism Spectrum-Friendly Home

SMArtichnun – Anatomy of a Sensory-Sensitive Inclusive Classroom

And I thought, that’s all very nice, but a lot of us don’t have the budget for a new build specifically to fit our needs, nor do most of us have the budget for a suitable renovation. I’m going to focus on the little things that can be done to make the most of existing spaces. There’s plenty out there targeted at parents of Autistic kids, so I’m mostly going to be looking at what Autistic adults can do to their habitats.

My experience of challenges with my environment has three levels. Relaxation, Transition and Productivity. These flow into one another. You get in from work (productivity), go through the ritual of getting in, putting your keys down, removing your shoes (transition) and settle into relaxation and you decompress from the day. Any obstacle in any of the levels can affect the other levels. For example, imagine you struggled to relax adequately before work, your productivity will suffer because you haven’t successfully recharged. Similarly, it might be hard to relax if you know your productivity is lacking, or have had a difficult transition between activities.

Let’s start with transition, as it feeds directly into both of the other states (I wanted to start with relaxation, I really did). First, think of all the transitions you make during the day. Here’s my list:

  • Waking up, getting dressed
  • Getting things together for work
  • Travel to work
  • Travel home
  • Getting in and putting away
  • Transitions between home activities (cooking, projects, relaxation, chores)

All of these transitions involve some level of organising stuff. The first challenge is knowing where everything is. To conquer this one, everything has to have its own place, there has to be a system. It also has to be easy to get to, I’m unlikely to work on a project if I have to get materials out from hard-to-reach places every time I want to work on it, but just leaving it out half-completed will impact all three levels. I’ll have trouble transitioning for other productivity activities because of reduced space and access to other things, I’ll also have a hard time both relaxing and concentrating because of the increased visual clutter.

Good storage solutions are a must. A good storage solution is one that holds all of the items neatly, whilst keeping them out of direct line-of-sight when not in use, items should be easy to remove individually, without the need to dig through to find them, creating more mess that needs to be cleaned up before you even use the item.

Avoid storage solutions that are strenuous to operate (for example stacked boxes that need to be lifted down), the more resistance you place between yourself and the task that needs doing, the less energy you’ll have to do the task, and the resulting lack of productivity will affect your relaxation time.

The placement of storage is important too, you want to create a natural flow to help with transitions. That way, you won’t be expending energy unnecessarily working out which step comes next, and can hang onto a few more precious spoons. A good example is dressing in the morning (especially for those of us prone to getting half dressed and then getting distracted). I keep all of my clothing in baskets, because it was cheaper than a chest of drawers, but the same theory applies. I find right to left and top to bottom, like reading, is the most natural order to organise my drawers in. Without thinking too much about outfit planning, I can run through the baskets one at a time until I’m dressed. Creating this natural flow in how storage is placed helps cut down on spoon expenditure, and makes the whole transition process a little smoother.

Productivity next. Make a list of all the productive exercises you engage in (all the things that can be categorised as work, this includes some recreational activities). To figure out if an activity belongs in the productivity list, look at whether it’s an active or a passive pastime. Arts and crafts, for example, is active, whereas watching television is passive. I consider meditation to be an active one, as it’s something you should really be doing in a quiet space away from the casual relaxation space (which might be noisy, full of electronics etc.)

  • Working from home on the computer
  • Computer based art
  • Blogging
  • Programming
  • Some computer games
  • Cooking
  • Exercising
  • Meditating
  • Physical crafts
  • Adulting (filing, paying bills, other naff stuff)
  • Cleaning

A big bit of this is storage, as previously mentioned, but there are a few more factors. Comfort is a big one. You’re really unlikely to go and work on something if you have to work on it somewhere too cold or warm, too bright, too dark, too isolated, too noisy. Look at the space and try to evaluate whether the space is right for the task you’re doing. Would that large project be easier to work on if there was enough floor space to spread it out?

  • Working from home on the computer (sofa)
  • Computer based art (desk or sofa)
  • Blogging (desk or sofa)
  • Programming (desk or sofa)
  • Computer games (desk or sofa)
  • Cooking (kitchen)
  • Exercising (wherever there’s enough floor space)
  • Meditating (the spare room)
  • Physical crafts *looks guiltily at various floors and surfaces around the living room*
  • Adulting (at my desk, by the front door, on the arm of the sofa…)
  • Cleaning (housewide)

Straight away, I’m noticing some problems. Working from home is difficult because as comfy as the sofa is, I’m stuck with a small laptop for a job that requires a lot of reading. Using the bigger screen at my desk would be better, but I’d have to find a way to hook the screen up to my laptop, and quickly and conveniently switch it back to my desktop when I want to do non-work things.

I avoid doing any kind of work at my desktop because of the desk clutter, unfiled papers, and honestly because I sit on a dining chair at my desktop and it’s not very comfortable after a whole day of sitting at work.

The kitchen suffers from a lack of worktop. Once you’ve got the microwave a safe distance from the stove and put the washing next to the sink (to save having to fish it out of the sink to then rinse it, fill the sink and wash it), there’s no work surface left. Luckily, there’s enough space in the kitchen for a table, so that should be an easy fix once we can budget for one.

The physical crafts (sewing, making things out of cardboard, and a few other things) have spilled off the dining table in the living room and are beginning to take over the floor. The difficulty here is that the majority of the craft storage is upstairs in spare room 1. The transition between tasks is a whole flight of stairs, followed by a cluttered spare room full of the dreaded stacked boxes. Things just don’t get put away.

Meditating is also something of a chore. The floor is hard, the room is bare and rather cold, altogether it’s rather unwelcoming.

Relaxation, finally! This is probably going to be the most unique to you. Make a list of the things that you enjoy doing to relax.

  • Watching TV
  • Listening to music
  • Playing computer games
  • Playing console games
  • Eating
  • Reading
  • Sleeping
  • Cuddling
  • Surfing the intertubes for lolcats
  • Tabletop roleplay games

Next, write a list of things that stop you from relaxing well enough:

  • Thinking about all the things I should be doing
  • Too much noise
  • Too much movement
  • Clutter
  • The decor in my rented flat
  • Being too cold or too warm
  • Not having enough weight
  • Hard seating, or seating where I can’t position myself to my liking
  • Sudden noises, especially the noise of cooking utensils being dropped.

Thinking about all the things I should be doing should be helped by putting away all the clutter that reminds me of jobs unfinished, and improving my productivity to get them finished.

Noise, light and movement can be obscured by closing doors, introducing curtains and screens between spaces, and adding rugs and other furnishings that help reduce noise.

The decor is one of those things that will be a lot of hassle to change. Picking colours and styles, asking permission from our agent, who will ask our landlord, then buying the materials, doing the work, arranging an inspection so that the agent can see we didn’t make a mess of it… and nothing will get rid of the hideous artex walls. That’s an improvement that’ll likely wait until I can afford to buy my own place.

Heat and cold. We’re very lucky to have a nice bright living room with lots of windows that we can open. However, I hate all things insect (the buzzing, the unpredictable movement, the potential for bites and stings, they’re not exactly autism-friendly critters), so bug screens are a must if I want to be able to open the windows this summer.

I like to have a throw or two available, so I’m not too cold and can get the right amount of weight when I need it. I currently only have two blankets suitable for this, and prefer one over the other because of size. More throws placed conveniently to where I tend to use them would make things a lot more comfortable.

Seating. Well, sooner or later I’m going to have to look for a computer chair that suits me. In the meantime, I may push two dining chairs together to make a better seat, and apply cushions to them with extreme prejudice.

What’s standing in the way of your ideal habitat? Comments, suggestions etc. always welcome.

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