Autistic children and adults often lack access to spaces that make them feel safe, or allow them to decompress and be themselves without interference or unwelcome scrutiny. Sometimes a lack of safe spaces is no one’s fault, as when living quarters have limited size or privacy. But too often, autistic safety, comfort, and ease are not considered due to a lack of autism understanding, or rejected outright due to insistence on complying with non-autistic lifestyle approaches.

While ideally all non-autistic people and professionals would understand what makes spaces feel safe for autistic people, the baseline should be that autistic people have at least one space to retreat to: their homes. We talked to autistic people from a variety of backgrounds—including autistic parents of autistic and neurodivergent kids—about strategies for making homes feel safe for the autistic people who live in them.

We talked with:

  • AnonymousCEG, a young autistic American Latina.
  • Sowocki, from Canada, who writes, “My name is  pronounced ‘swahkee.’ I also go by Sarah Owocki. She/her pronouns. I am autistic and a single parent to an autistic five year old.”
  • Natasha Nelson AKA Supernova Momma, Certified Positive Discipline Educator, Autism and Disability Advocate, and Black American, who says “I am not just autistic; I have autism, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, sensory processing disorder/SPD, generalized anxiety disorder/GAD, and SSD, which is somatic syndrome disorder. And yes I have children, both are autistic and Paris, my oldest child, has also been diagnosed with ADHD.”
  • AnonymousA, a young British autistic man.
  • Jenny Mai Phan, a Vietnamese American autistic woman and autism researcher, who has autistic and neurodivergent children.
  • AnonymousP, a white nonbinary American autistic autism consultant.
  • Chris Williams, a late-diagnosed white autistic American father of three autistic children.

Why is it important for autistic people to have spaces that feel safe?

Anonymous CEG: “It is important for autistic people to have spaces that feel safe because autistic people process the sensory features of the world differently from neurotypicals.  For example I like wearing long sleeves even when it’s a sunny day because I like the feeling of my arms being covered.  More than that, safe spaces for autistic people are a way of letting them know that their reaction to the world is understood.”

Sowocki: It’s important because the world is not by default safe for us. In fact, it can be very far from safe.

Natasha Nelson: Because the world is not built to allow us to feel safe, and we still have to live in this world, in the way that it is, and so having safe spaces for these autistic children, and autistic people, to be able to be themselves, to unwind, it helps with mitigating meltdowns, it helps with regulation, and it helps to give us a place to restore ourselves when we have to be out in the world.

Jenni Mai Phan: We and our children are in regular states of stress due to our conditions and societal expectations. This wears down our neurological, metabolic, and immune functioning over time. Safe spaces give us a break from stressors and help us to regulate.

Chris Williams: All people need environments, interactions, routines and relationships where they feel safe. Without safe spaces, discomforts, tensions, anxieties, and dysregulation can develop. The differences in sensing, thinking, and communicating that come with the autistic experience can make the world a challenging and stressful place to navigate, especially if our identities are misunderstood and our needs go unsupported. Autistic people need safe places we can trust, depend on, and exist in; where we can soothe and regulate our bodies and minds.

When you think about a home that feels safe for autistic people, what are the most important elements, and why?

Anonymous CEG: When I think of a home that feels safe for autistic people, the three elements I think of are: 1. A room with enough space for me to stim; 2. floors that are smooth so I can pace; and 3. locks on the doors that I can set up at night.

Sowocki: Openness to ALL forms of communication. My daughter and I both use mouth words to communicate, but that doesn’t mean we can use all the mouth words to communicate in all ways at all times (a silly box that ableds have built if ever there was one). Any way that we communicate is a good way.

Pets. My daughter and I live with two cats and a betta fish. We dream of getting more pets. We talk about pets constantly. I know she will have pets in her future, whatever form this takes, and am excited about this for her. (Obviously, this doesn’t mean that all autistic people love pets, but my daughter and I definitely do love pets in, I feel, a very autistic way.)

Sensory flexibility. As an autistic parent of an autistic kid, my child and I both have sensory needs, and sometimes these are similar and sometimes not. Our home is the #1 space we can address these, and feel they are naturally part of life, not something extra, not an add-on, not an “accommodation.” Just part of our space, there.

AnonymousA: It can become quite suffocating to feel like you’re on your own and no one around you understands you. It’s hard enough without friends, it’s even harder when it’s your own family. They need people who will listen to them and try to see things from their perspective and try and understand, not speak over them. Instead of saying “talk to me,” sometimes it can be easier to find a way to get it out of the person.

Natasha Nelson: The first is sensory awareness, the second is communication, alternate communication awareness, the third is openness to difference, almost a flexibility—even on rigidity. That’s funny right? 

Because sometimes you will have autistic people who need rigidness, they need certain routines, they need certain things to be a specific way, but then you will also have autistic and neurodivergent people who can’t have such straight rigidity, and they need to feel like they have autonomy, like they have some collaboration and cooperation. So you have to just kinda be open to supporting people and their needs, and being okay with different and other, and having to incorporate a world for different and other. 

And so those are the top three things that when I think of a home that is safe for autistic people, I think of being aware of sensory needs, having options for a spectrum of sensory needs, I think of being open and understanding to different ways of communication, so having options for alternative and augmentative communication, and then also being open to different, and supporting and accommodating differences. 

Being open to the idea that someone may need rigidity, that someone may need flexibility, there may be different needs in one household, and how to support those things. 

Jenny Mai Phan: A quiet room with soft, comfortable bedding materials and loads of cooling blankets and stuffies allows us to experience safe sensory stimulation that is calming. A place for us to dance and jump around without a crowd and with dancing music gives us a way to release our energies and engage in physical activities. A way for us to play with water safely, either through a tub filled with water, bubbles, Epsom salt, etc. or a small pool for us to immerse our bodies in water without drowning.

Anonymous P: Don’t judge people in the household for what they eat, how they eat food, whether they shower every day or every week, what they watch on the tv, etc. Judgment from others in the house about greasy hair or “childish” interests or being seen as a “recluse” can really make autistic people learn to critique themselves without question. This can cause a lifelong nagging voice in the person’s head to not “be so annoying” or “too much” or “be so childish.” A lot of people associate joy and comfort foods with childhood, like cartoons and mac and cheese.

We also need to stop belittling children by using “childish” as an insult, because that certainly doesn’t help anyone. Growing up around criticism makes it hard to know what you truly enjoy in life and it can also stifle creativity and connection.

Don’t bring neurotypical societal standards into your house, as that’s really the only place where autistic people can have a reprieve from that constant critique.

Chris Williams: Listen to each other. Work to understand your autistic sensory profiles. What environments does one’s body find joy in? What environments bring one’s body stress and dysregulation? Understand these elements for each person that lives in the home and design private spaces and shared spaces accordingly. Sometimes access needs can compete with each other. Depending on how much space you have inside or outside the home, consider how you can diffuse that tension and build patience and understanding around it when it occurs.

We each self soothe and self regulate in different ways; What helps you may not help someone else. Some people need spaces that offer quiet retreat. Some people need spaces where they can loudly enjoy their interests. If your environment is small and quiet spaces are hard to create, noise canceling headphones for each household member may be valuable tools to make available. Softer lighting may be essential if a household member has visual sensitivities. If a person in the home appreciates kinesthetic movements like swaying, rocking, or being suspended in the air, furniture like teardrop swings or hammocks or trampolines may bring peace and joy. If a person in the home appreciates sight or sound experiences, a home theater may bring excitement and relief.

Considering how you can accommodate and include each person in the household in spaces you share with each other and spaces you need apart from each other goes a long way toward achieving harmony together.

What else should everyone who has autistic people in their lives know about creating a home that feels safe?

Anonymous CEG: Another thing I would like people to know about creating a home that feels safe is that autistic folks are prone to misplacing objects. I try to combat this by retracing my steps in my room, where my shelves and desks are unbothered.  So leaving the drawers and cabinets of autistic people alone makes a world of difference and brings about a greater peace of mind to us.

Sawocki: For me, in creating a home that feels safe for me and my daughter, I have to address the role that multigenerational trauma has played and is playing in our family. My late, younger brother was autistic, and my daughter shares a number of traits with him—while of course being very much her own person. I can’t react the way I saw my parents react to my brother’s autistic needs as we were growing up (and also once we were grown). I would just be continuing cycles of trauma and harm.

But, interrupting this is hard and takes work. I have to actively work to question ALL the narratives being shoved at me about “could, should, would” with parenting, from all sources, but particularly allistic [non-autistic] sources. They were never going to apply to our family, but particularly because I carry this multigenerational trauma, I have to be super aware of them and ready to pull them apart and build something better. That’s why I really welcome being part of the broader autistic community. We are building something better, piece by piece.

Anonymous A: Mutual understanding, open communication and a sense of security, so there’s no pressure being placed on anyone.

Natasha Nelson In order for you to create a home that feels safe, it can’t just be the home and the people who live there. When someone, a visitor or someone new, comes there, of course you want to be welcoming and a good host to that person—but they also need to understand that this is the autistic person’s or neurodivergent person’s home, and that they’re coming into a space that is okay with sensory differences, that is okay with communication differences, and that is okay with people being different. 

And so making sure that you’re advocating for and communicating to the visitors in your home that this is a safe place both for them and for the people who are autistic, the people who are neurodivergent in that home. I think that those things are how you create a home that is safe for autistic and neurodivergent families. 

Jenny Mai Phan: Putting a sign on doors that lead outside to check all the things before leaving the house (i.e., phone, keys, shoes, notifying a trusted member where you’re going, etc.). Having noise cancelling headphones or earplugs and sleeping eye masks throughout the house. Having soft, comfortable ice packs at the ready and placing those on the back of the neck to cool down inflammation and regulate the autonomic nervous system.

Black-and-white 1850 daguerrotype in an ornate rectangular gold frame. The image is titled "House on a Hillside" and features a white one-story home underneath a large spreading tree.
Public domain image via National Gallery of Art