Considering and meeting the sensory needs of autistic people in housing

Supporting autistic people to flourish at home and beyond.

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Co-produced with a group of people with lived experience

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This project was commissioned in 2020 from NDTI by the Care and Health Improvement programme and co-produced with a group of people with lived experience.

In recent years, a greater understanding of autistic people has emerged. New research and years of collaboration with autistic people of all kinds has changed almost everything society thought it knew about autism. We now know that autistic people are in every role in society, whether it is a volunteer at a charity, or as a front-line healthcare professional. Enabling autistic lives does not just mean improving care home settings but considering the environments for the vast majority of autistic people who live and work in everyday places. We are also more aware of the diversity of autistic people, and are locating far more who are older, female, part of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, and part of the LGBTQ+ communities.

Sensory differences

One of the most important findings is that most autistic people have significant sensory differences, compared to most non-autistic people.  Autistic brains take in vast amounts of information from the world, and many have considerable strengths, including the ability to detect changes that others miss, great dedication and honesty, and a deep sense of social justice. But, because so many have been placed in a world where they are overwhelmed by pattern, colour, sound, smell, texture and taste, those strengths have not had a chance to be shown. Instead, they are plunged into perpetual sensory crisis, leading to either a display of extreme behaviour – a meltdown, or to an extreme state of physical and communication withdrawal – a shutdown. If we add to this the misunderstandings from social communication with one another, it becomes easier to see how opportunities to improve autistic lives have been missed.

If we are serious about enabling thriving in autistic lives, we must be serious about the sensory needs of autistic people, in every setting. The benefits of this extend well beyond the autistic communities; what helps autistic people will often help everyone else as well.

This executive summary (and our full report) guides teams on how to consider sight, sound, smell, and touch, when designing or commissioning spaces. In the full report we provide detailed discussion of the different internal and external senses and how these can be experienced differently by autistic individuals. Here we focus on how these differences might be considered within housing environment, as well as the challenges of shared spaces, the joys of outdoor spaces and pets for some, and the importance of a personal space and somewhere for the person’s key possessions and hobbies. Thought is also given for matters of security and creating a real sense of belonging. A summarised checklist (provided as a useable table in the full report) acts as a starting point for discussions and audits, building projects and housing searches.

Finally, the involvement of autistic people in reviewing and changing the sensory environment will support the identification of things that are not visible or audible to their neurotypical counterparts. We strongly encourage this wherever possible.

Sensory considerations for housing

Below are some guidelines to begin with when thinking about the various sensory aspects of housing for autistic individuals. In our full report we share more contributor experiences and provide more background information as well as a useable detailed checklist for each sensory modality.

Wherever possible, we encourage the involvement of autistic people in reviewing sensory environments. We believe that autistic people are uniquely qualified to review environments for themselves or for other autistic people.

We hope that these suggestions will be helpful to lots of people. It can be used in shared houses as well as individual homes.

Finally, we recommend considering all senses in every space – including entrances. Slow down, walk through.

Below are our recommendations for small changes that can be made to an environment to improve the sensory experiences and wellbeing of autistic people. Click on each sense for the relevant recommendations.


Thanks and acknowledgements

  • This National Development Team for Inclusion summary and full report was inspired by the needs identified by NDTi’s Autism Team – Richard Maguire, Ann Memmott and Chris Memmott. 
  • Writers and editors: Ann Memmott, Chris Memmott, Gemma Williams, Jill Corbyn.
  • A full list of contributors to the paper, and the images and artwork.


Illustrations by Jon Adams

Jon Adams is both a contemporary artist, advocate and researcher. He makes a variety of work in many differing media often referencing his autism, synaesthesia and dyslexia, all interwoven with history, science, time and his past experiences. He's shown in galleries such as Royal Academy, Tate Modern and been commissioned by many arts and science organisations including projects for Parliament, London 2012 and on stage. He advocates for the rights of neurodivergent people to fully access the arts, funding, health care and relevant research.

Supporting Autistic Flourishing at Home and Beyond - Jon Adams' Illustrations

Jon Adams illustration


Alexis’ artwork Autistic campaigner and activist, public speaker, author of Unbroken.

T.E.Yates illustrations Yates produces detailed pencil drawings utilising a hybrid of graphite and charcoal. He is also a digital illustrator, multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and award-nominated animator.

Richard’s photos Richard is a keen photographer. He is an author (I dream in Autism), an autistic trainer and mentor and the director of Autism Live.

Next steps

More detailed information is contained in our full report "Appropriate Environments for Autistic People: Considering and meeting sensory needs in housing". Please email [email protected] if you would like to receive the full report or visit the NDTI website.