The One Thing I Use to Make My Apartment Sensory-Friendly as an Autistic Person

published Jun 12, 2022
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There isn’t much I remember off the top of my head about my first college dorm room, other than a poster of my artwork hung above my bed and a white throw blanket with rainbow hearts on it draped over a wooden chair. That throw was a “homey” thing, disguising the dorm-standard desk chair or quickly being taken off by my friends because my room was somehow always freezing. It was something soft and special that brought me an unquestionable sense of calm.

This was my first foray into realizing I was making my space sensory-friendly, even if the products weren’t specifically designed for that purpose. Disabled people do all sorts of things to make their homes comfortable and affirming, and as a neurodivergent person, I’m a part of that.

When I moved into my first (and current) apartment three years later to attend law school at the University of Miami, the rainbow hearts blanket was long gone, recycled after countless washing machine trips and a decor style change. My one-bedroom space is filled with life; it’s an evolving portrait of who I have become since I turned 21 right in the middle of moving in.

While change is hard for me, the constants remain: My place has two new resident throw blankets — an aqua one with white tassels folded over a black leather gliding rocking chair, the other in my bedroom, wrapped over a cyan desk chair. I’ve been here for seven years, and it’s the sameness that makes me able to feel at home. 

Credit: FollowTheFlow | Getty Images

In a space chock-full of my paintings and knicknacks, it’s the blankets that make home feel like home — that make it an accessible place for me. Because I’m autistic, having my creature comforts is one thing, but having them be sensory-friendly is a whole other one. I pick everything by touch, seeking out furnishings and tchotchkes that bring me joy and also feel nice when I ran my hands over them. My throw blankets stay dutifully on the chairs until I realize I’m feeling overwhelmed, unreasonably cold from the air conditioning, or trying to destress on the couch, and then before I know I’m wrapped up and feeling like everything is well in the world again.       

Autistic people like me often have heightened sensory experiences and sensitivities. Some neurodivergent folks are sensory seekers and others are sensory avoiders — either craving more input, or trying to escape input, depending on the sense and situation. For me, I’m a little bit of both. Most of the things I find overwhelming are sounds like saxophones in jazz music, thumping DJs at restaurants or bars, a massive crowd, or trying new foods. My sensory seeking is touch-based: Though wool makes me want to crawl out of my skin, most soft things like blankets bring me a sense of relief.

Having sensory items around my house just makes sense to me, whether it’s the fidgets on my kitchen table (my primary workspace), the rocking chair, or even my blankets. Often, autistic people are known for everything that’s hard for us, and I’m asked much more about my struggles than my comforts. So having a place (and items) that brings me joy and relaxation away from the pressures of the social demands of the outside world? That’s something I’ve learned to appreciate and embrace more and more. 

Even when it comes to the things that bring me autistic joy in my living space, I don’t neatly fall into a neurodiversity stereotype because of my preference to avoid weighted blankets and go for softer, lightweight, decorative ones that still double up in practicality. Autistic folks have praised how weighted blankets particularly make them feel less anxious or regulated. I find them to be too warm for my Floridian self, plus the pounds of pressure embedded in them give me a sense of anxiety I can’t escape from. It’s something I laugh about now, but I have felt a sort of embarrassment for disliking something that’s seen as a mainstay in my community. But then again, all of us find our sensory joys in different things and use individual strategies to get there. 

I don’t think I’ll ever live in a world that truly subscribes to the social model of disability in an idealistic sense, where everything is perfectly accessible and sensory-friendly. (No matter how hard businesses and communities try to be sensory or autism friendly, there’s so much individual variation in needs). In the outside world, I face biases and stereotypes based on my autism, people who question my competence, and social exclusion, on top of the harshness of things like the lighting in the grocery store or the sounds of overcrowded restaurants. But when I’m home, in my perfect little “me” space where I can stim happily and immediately retreat into calm or self-soothe accordingly, the world feels safe.

Disabled activist Alice Wong says “access is love.”  And sometimes, that love means self-love and building an environment that feels accessible for you even when others don’t always understand it.