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Autism comfort zones

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Everyone has a lockdown story. For me, it was discovering I’m autistic. “Colour us surprised,” muttered my sarcastic friends. “We could have told you that years ago.” Like many women of my generation, I had been masking the condition from myself and others for most of my life (with varying degrees of success).

Now it’s a relief to admit that I need certain conditions in order to function in the world. I will never, repeat never, put up with cold white lighting again!

This set me thinking about what other autistic people need in their homes. As it turns out, it’s very individual. Some people need calming interior spaces with muted colours and nothing on the walls. Many find background noises disturbing and, for some, the combination of a dishwasher, a television, and people talking can be unbearable.

Others can’t be around the colour yellow or shiny surfaces, or certain types of smell. A scented candle can cause a great deal of distress. Then, there’s the safety thing. Some autistic people have issues with co-ordination and balance; eliminating sharp corners and other obstacles can help a lot.

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Saba Italia Geo range from Go Modern Furniture Saba Italia Geo range from Go Modern Furniture

Saba Italia Geo range from Go Modern Furniture

Saba Italia Geo range from Go Modern Furniture

“The main thing is asking people what makes them comfortable,” says Cat Hughes, a Dubliner who works with the UK charity, Autistica. “People think they’re doing me a favour by having everything really calm and really beige, but that doesn’t work for me.”

Unlike many autistic people, who need to dial the world down to make it tolerable, she is a “sensory seeker”. That is someone who craves bright colours, varying textures and a general medley of sensory chaos. “If I really want to concentrate, I have the TV and the radio on at the same time,” she says. “I’m not listening to either one. I just need a chaos top-up!” The important thing, as far as she is concerned, is versatility. “Where possible, you need to have different options. And dimmer switches everywhere!”

None of these issues are particularly difficult to address. The challenge, in terms of interior design, is that all autistic people are different and there is no one size fits all. Creating a sensory profile, a simple list of what a person likes and dislikes, can save time and money in the long run.

“Think about your child’s sensory profile at the design stage and let it drive the process,” says Adam Harris, founder of AsIAm, Ireland’s National Autism Charity. “When I was growing up, it was very important for me to have my own space, so my parents built an extension at the back of the house.”

Not everyone has the resources to make such major changes; the important thing is to acknowledge and accommodate the need to withdraw. It can be as simple as a pop-up tent in the front room.

Many autistic people, including those who hold down high-powered jobs, struggle with the practicalities of daily life. It’s called “executive dysfunction”. “The Internet of Things can be really helpful here,” Harris says, citing electronic reminders for people who forget to eat and appliances that switch themselves off, should the user become absorbed in some other task. I mention my adult son, also autistic, who repeatedly loses his keys. “I have a pin code instead of a key,” Harris admits. “It’s been life changing.”

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Woody Adorjan and father Sonny have created prints from Woody’s quotes, called Woodism Woody Adorjan and father Sonny have created prints from Woody’s quotes, called Woodism

Woody Adorjan and father Sonny have created prints from Woody’s quotes, called Woodism

Woody Adorjan and father Sonny have created prints from Woody’s quotes, called Woodism

Many autistic people have a ‘special interest’, which is a euphemistic way of describing a passion that consumes every fibre of your being. It can be tempting to theme your child’s room around their special interest, but do bear in mind that these can change. Woody, the seven-year-old autistic son of Charlotte and Sonny Adorjan, is a case in point.

“He went through a pretty big Star Wars obsession recently, so we have posters from that on the wall and Storm Troopers everywhere. Sadly, he’s gone off it. Which, in his case, means he’s severed his love completely and can’t really stand to look at anything Star Wars related,” the parents Adorjan explain. They’re less enthusiastic about Woody’s current obsession with playing horror games on his iPad and unsure about how to translate this into comforting design. “It’s difficult to put up scary pictures to help him not be scared of his room at night.”

Then, there’s stimming (short for ‘self-stimulatory behaviour’). Everyone does this to a greater or lesser extent – knuckle-cracking is a good one – but autistic people need to stim to regulate their mood. Sometimes it looks odd. Woody’s favourite stim is running up and down the house making noise. “He also often likes us to be in his eye-line as we’re a reassuring presence (especially since Covid), so a modern open-plan space would really suit him. Unfortunately, we live in a Victorian terrace, which is the opposite of that.

“If we were to create a perfect home for Woody right now, if we won the lottery or something, it would be open plan with glass walls, apart from in the loo. He loves privacy there luckily. It would have maybe one place to go to that was more cosy and calm. It would have a trampoline room, black walls, no funny electric sounds, no Star Wars stuff, a TV and an iPad in every room. And a self-cleaning floor.”

Woody’s ideal home would have no breakable objects. “If there’s something that looks breakable, he can’t help but break it.” And no little red lights on electric appliances. “He really can’t bear that. It looks like an eye.”

Like many parents of autistic children, Sonny and Charlotte wouldn’t have him any other way. “Without Woody’s autism, it wouldn’t be Woody!” And they have a keen appreciation of the way he puts things into words. “Some of the things that he says are quite profound.”

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Child's bedroom with Bubblegum bed from Circu Child's bedroom with Bubblegum bed from Circu

Child’s bedroom with Bubblegum bed from Circu

Child’s bedroom with Bubblegum bed from Circu

They made a list and Sonny, who is a graphic designer, incorporates Woody’s words into a lino-cut print. These are then reproduced as posters and cards. “I love you more than anybody ever built.” “I wish we were the only people on board this planet.” “If I could choose another mum, it would still be you.” And: “I hate how much I love you.”

The father-and-son collaboration was empowering for both of them. For Sonny, it gave him the confidence to make art prints; for Woody, who doesn’t always find school easy, it was empowering that people wanted to hang his words on the wall. “I am the author!” he says triumphantly. And then, more recently: “I’m bored of Woodism now.”

Posters from Woodism cost €50 for an unframed giclée print (30cm x 40cm). A percentage of the profits go to the charity Ambitious About Autism.

See asiam.ie and woodism.co.uk.

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