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Helpful Accommodations for Autistic People


Autistic people are generally estimated to comprise less than 2% of the population, and live in a world largely designed for and by people with radically different sensory needs and desires (neurotypicals). As such, many of us can find day-to-day life to often be unintentionally hostile and unpleasant. Fortunately, there are a number of various accommodations that exist that can help autistic people live a better life and better achieve their potential.

Some people may glance at the list below and question how I can argue that autism is merely a neurotype and not a disability if it can require so many accommodations. I have mentioned this before in passing and should probably write an entire page to it one day, but I subscribe to the school of thought that autism can only be classified as a disability by the definition of the social model of disability.

The social model of disability states that a person isn't inherently disabled so much as they are disabled by society being designed for people with different abilities and needs. For example, a short person is not disabled because they are unable to reach an item on a shelf designed for people that are six feet tall, so much as the design of the shelf disables them. To dismiss autistic people as mentally disabled simply because many of us need accommodations in order to thrive is myopic and ignorant because it utterly dismisses the many proven boons that often accompany the autism neurotype.

Animated UFO. Weighted Blankets - I've heard a lot of very good things about weighted blankets for a while before actually deciding to purchase one, and was very skeptical for a long time, believing that they surely had to be a "meme." It seemed ludicrous that something as basic as a heavy blanket could have the miraculous effects that people on the Internet were claiming that it had. As I would discover, weighted blankets are indeed an absolute godsend to anyone who is autistic or ADHD and/or has anxiety, sensory-processing challenges, PTSD, insomnia, or a number of other similiar issues.

I can still vividly remember the first time I laid down under my heavy blanket after it had arrived in the mail. While I originally intended to simply lie down for a minute or so as a quick trial run before returning to what I was working on, I was so overwhelmed by the sudden outburst of contentness and happiness that I wound up lying under it for at least half an hour. If you've ever taken opioids and thus know the warm feeling of total contentment that they provide, I daresay the feeling of being under a weighted blanket can strongly resemble this to some autistic people (myself, at least.)

The reason that weighted blankets work is because the whole-body pressure that they apply simulates the feeling of being hugged, which causes the brain to release a surge of pleasant hormones, including the "love" hormone oxytocin. They also provide a form of deep touch pressure therapy, which has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety in autistic and ADHD people. This is a principle that also applies to cats and dogs!

One thing to keep in mind with weighted blankets is that they are pretty expensive, and the market is flooded with many different options. If you decide you are interested in buying one, I highly recommend doing a a good amount of research before committing. Cheaper blankets may seem appealing due to the cost-saving, but I have heard many anecdotes about them not lasting very long due to the pouches holding the beads ripping and causing all of the blanket's weight to shift to one side of it. It's generally recommended to have a weighted blanket that is around 10% of your body weight, although for what it's worth, I've seen far more people saying that they wished they had gone for a heavier one than I've seen wishing they had gotten a lighter one.

For my part, I own a rather heavy blanket made by Quility and a YnM bamboo cooling weighted blanket that I wound up purchasing for research purposes, both of which I am extremely content with. The cooling blanket is still too warm for me on most nights, but I have always had an anomalous high amount of body heat that has made sleeping on summer nights a problem even without any blanket. I have had some success putting a large desk fan next to my bed and turning it on the highest setting however. The white noise from the fan is very soothing, and combined with the blanket, has provided me with possibly the most relaxing sleep of my life.

While the cost of a pair of a decent weighted blanket is usually very steep, I have heard a few anecdotes of autistic people who have managed to get their health insurance to help pay for such an accommodation after receiving a prescription for one from a psychiatrist specialising in autism, so this is something that may be worth attempting to do.

Animated UFO. (Noise-Cancelling) Headphones - Extremely heightened hearing (and other senses) and an inability to filter out extraneous sounds are both hallmarks of autism, and can lead to issues ranging from difficulties focusing to meltdowns when having to spend time in noisy areas. Depending on the severity of the noise, and the level of an autism person's sensory issues, regular headphones, earphones, or earplugs may be sufficient for masking noise, while other cases may require full-on noise-cancelling headphones.

One of the biggest advantages of using noise-cancelling headphones over regular headphones or earbuds, is that the latter usually requires listening to music at loud enough volumes to produce permanent hearing damage, in order to effectively drown out background noise. A particularly good pair of noise-cancelling headphones, on the other hand, can effectively block out the vast majority of sounds without even requiring music to be played at all.

Noise-cancelling headphones come in two varieties: active and passive noise-cancelling. Active-noise cancelling headphones respond to the sound waves being emitted around them and produce an inverse sound that cancels them out (wave interference), while passive ones essentially seal the person's ears off from the outside world. In a sense, passive noise-cancelling is akin to closing and locking one's front door, while active noise-cancelling is akin to having armed guards standing by the door in case anyone breaks through it. Active ones work better for cancelling out relatively steady sounds like the hum of an engine, while passive ones are better for cancelling out unpredictable, loud sounds like construction work or crowds of people.

One thing I have heard before that needs to be mentioned, is that relying too heavily on noise-cancelling headphones can cause an autistic person, especially a child, to become even less tolerant of noises and thus cause them to function worse overall. Noise-cancelling headphones are of course extremely beneficial and there's no reason an autistic person shouldn't use them if they feel the need to, but moderation is very important.

One also needs to be wary about wearing them in a place where one needs to be aware of their surroundings. Although autistic people have unusually good peripheral vision and other heighted senses that can compensate to the inability to hear to a minor extent, a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones will completely block out all surrounding sounds if used with music. Since autism is highly co-morbid with ADHD, and even autistics without ADHD have a tendency to become engrossed in an activity or their own thoughts, to the point of completely losing track of everything else, wearing noise-cancelling headphones can be a dangerous liability due to the complete lack of situational awareness that they can produce.

As with weighted blankets, the market is positively saturated with a cornucopia of different noise-cancelling headphones, and a good amount of diligence and research is recommended before making a purchase, especially due to the high cost of active noise-cancelling headphones. I would recommend going as far as to try a set out in a physical store, if possible, before committing to buying anything. A set of headphones that works perfectly for one person can be an uncomfortable nightmare for another person, especially due to how incredibly diverse sensory issues are across the autism spectrum.

On my end, after months of research and deliberation, I wound up purchasing a pair of Bose QuietComfort active noise-cancelling headphones and a pair of OneOdio passive noise-cancelling headphones. I adore both purchases, but the Bose pair definitely won me over quite a good deal more. It blew my mind just how well it is able to drown out background noise, even without the active noise-cancelling being activated.

I was admittedly very put off by the headphones demanding that one use an "app" (and by extension, own a smartphone) to control them and by the fact that they were wireless, but I later learned that both of these deal-breakers could be avoided as the headphones supported being used with an audio cable and would function just fine without any smartphone program. I also needed to buy an extension cable to comfortably use them with my desktop computer, but I felt that this was still worth it, as the improvements to my mental health both at work, at home, and while running errands have been nothing short of life-changing.

One nice thing about the Bose headphones is that, with only the noise-cancelling enabled and no music playing, they generally allow me to still hear people's voices while completely shutting out offensive environmental disturbances such as roadway noise and machinery. I have been wearing them extensively at home, at work, and while grocery shopping and hooking them to either my computer or my MP3 player, and this has been quite handy as I can pause the music if I have to speak with someone, such as a cashier, while still enjoying the serenity of being shielded from the cacophony of background noises.

The cost of a pair of active noise-cancelling is exorbitant compared to that of most regular headphones, but, as mentioned earlier regarding weighted blankets, since they are a much-needed accommodation for most autistic people, it may be possible to obtain a prescription for one from a psychiatrist specialising in autism, in order to have some of the cost covered by one's health insurance.

Animated UFO. White Noise Generators - A white noise machine or any device that can perform a similiar function of producing a constant sound to drown out background noise, such as a dehumidifier, a fan, or a desktop computer, can be an excellent alternative to headphones in situations where it would behoove an autistic person to stay aware of their immediate surroundings. If nothing else, they are an objectively superior method of noise-cancelling for sleeping, as the potential pitfalls of completely drowning out all sound while being unconscious for 8 hours are too numerous to even begin mentioning.

I would personally advise against purchasing an actual white noise machine as I believe it's wasteful to buy a machine that only serves such a restricted purpose. One method that I have successfully used in the past to help me relieve anxiety and sleep is to hook a low power consumption machine such as a Raspberry Pi or a Netbook to some speakers and set it to play either a white noise recording or a recording of some relaxing and repetitive sounds such as ocean waves or sea buoy bells. There exists a smorgasbord of such things on YouTube and other video-streaming websites.

Most recently, I have started using a large desk fan next to my bed to help me sleep. This keeps me relatively cool despite my weighted blanket, and drowns out unpleasant noises without blocking out potential sounds of danger if they occur. I have also been using a fan at work as a way of muffling conversational noise around me without relying on noise-cancelling headphones with music, which made it annoyingly difficult for co-workers to get my attention as I couldn't even hear people screaming anymore.

Animated UFO. Dim Lighting - Bright lights, fluorescent ones especially, are another famous villain of autistics and other people with sensory issues, leading to stress, anxiety, sensory overload, or even physical pain in autistic people with more severe sensory issues. Some of us (including me) can even hear the sound of fluorescent lights operating and for a minority of autistics this sensation can be loud enough so as to be completely overwhelming!

A study from 2013 showed that autistic people's brains generate 42% more information than the brains of neurotypicals, which leads to us essentially receiving a more intense amount of input from our senses, making it more difficult to focus and making us liable to be overloaded by things that neurotypicals are not bothered by.

While dimmer fluorescent lighting or incandescent lighting can be very beneficial for reducing stress in autistic people, lighting a room with nothing but the natural light of a window, if possible, could be an even more preferable and calming alternative.

Animated UFO. Sensory Hours - A very positive trend that has slowly been emerging in a handful of countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand is the practice of grocery stores and supermarkets dedicating an hour or a few hours every week to creating a low-sensory environment. This usually involves things such as dimming the lights, turning off music, lowering the volume of checkout noises, and pausing cart collection. For obvious reasons, this is a wonderful idea with provable benefits to not only autistic people but anyone else who has sensory-processing issues due to conditions such as anxiety or PTSD, or even anyone who simply doesn't think their toilet paper buying experience is exciting enough to warrant a booming soundtrack.

The only real issue that I have with this practice is that these hours are usually very limited and held at odd times, one example I've seen being every Wednesday from 1430 to 1530 (2:30 PM to 3:30 PM.) Although autistic people face grave discrimination in the working world, many of us (such as myself) do have jobs and cannot take advantage of these sorts of things. Furthermore, I have heard a number of anecdotes from neurotypicals who prefer taking care of their grocery shopping during sensory hours because they also enjoy the calm atmosphere in spite of not being autistic, so there is a good argument to be made for making sensory hours much more common.

Animated UFO. Written/Typed Communication - I wrote an entire treatise on why writing is provably a superior communication method than speaking, and while my arguments were largely made for a general audience, this notion is even truer for autistic people, a sizeable portion of whom are non-verbal. Even many verbal autistic people such as myself however, strongly dislike face-to-face interaction due to all of the enigmatic rules involved in it, and may have severe trouble understanding and retaining verbal instructions in the workplace or classroom.

I could share many personal anecdotes of spending 2 hours in a college mathematics classroom, being completely unable to comprehend what the professor was talking about, only to easily master the concepts being taught after reading the textbook and doing a few practice problems. Even when it comes to very simple instructions, on a stressful day, some of us may be so overwhelmed by the machinations of maintaining proper eye contact, regulating our facial expressions and tone of voice, and so forth, that we will miss every single word we were told. Even in phone conversations with no facial expressions however, sensory-processing issues can make it difficult for some autistic people to keep up with the conversation.

Animated UFO. Subtitles - As mentioned in the previous entry, many autistic people can struggle to process verbal communication, yet have no such difficulty when it comes to reading text. For this reason, subtitles for videos or movies can be incredibly helpful in helping us keep up with the content.

Animated UFO. Technical Assessments Instead of Job Interviews - As I have bemoaned multiple times in the past, despite the many proven mental advantages that autistic people have, the unemployment rate for autistic adults is staggeringly high. One of the reasons for this is due to autistic people being inherently disadvantaged compared to neurotypicals in job interviews, which are largely a test of a person's social skills and ability to display themselves as "safe" and "normal", rather than an honest assessment of their knowledge and skills. Many neurotypicals of course also suffer as a result of this due to mental conditions such as shyness or social anxiety.

In recent years, a number of companies such as Microsoft and SAP have begun to recognise the immense contributions that autistic workers can bring to a company, and the amount of untapped potential in the pool of unemployed autistic people and have developed programs specifically designed to hire more autistics. Since autistic people often struggle with job interviews, some of these companies are skipping this approach and instead vetting autistic candidates with online technical assessments or by having them do some hands-on technical work.

Animated UFO. Stim Toys - As mentioned on the Autism-Related Terminology page, stimming is any repetitive behaviours that are used for self-regulating and relieving anxiety. Some autistic people may have stims that are fairly neurotypical (pacing, foot-tapping, hair-twirling) while others may have ones that can be off-putting to neurotypicals (rocking, finger-flicking) or even debilitating (chewing on clothing.)

Stim toys are essentially any items that help satisfy stimming-related needs. These include chewable "jewelry" which can redirect harmful behaviour such as clothing-chewing or jaw-clenching, fidget spinners, scented oils, items with specific pleasant textures, stress balls, and so forth. I do not own and have not experimented with any stim toys myself (unless a weighted blanket and chewing gum count,) but I think they're an interesting idea that is apparently quite helpful for some autistic people.