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Making a Home for Special Needs Children
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

A House for All Children (by Richard Olsen, Lynn Hutchings, and Ezra Ehrenkrantz, with the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research) came to the attention of the Texas Chapter ASID, 2002 Annual CEPH Event when Karen Pemberton CCRN and Dr. Nancy Hitzfelder, Medical Director, (both from the Easter Seal Society of Greater Dallas Area) presented information about the impact of the home environment on children, not only on children with disability needs, but also children with sensory integration dysfunctions?a condition that affects many children to varying degrees.

The family house is not a neutral zone in the lives of children; it plays a key role in enabling children?s independence, especially children with disabilities,? state the authors in A House for All Children. ?We feel strongly that a truly supportive environment is one that allows children with disabilities to function at the peak of their abilities?whatever the type and degree of their physical challenges.? Based on extensive research and interviews with parents and children, the book provides guidelines and specific directions for modifying an existing home?s architecture as well as relocating to what could become an ?ideal? home design in the right neighborhood. Eight chapters from ?Why We Wrote This Book? to ?The Children?s Story? define the necessary steps it takes to transform almost any home and the surroundings into truly accessible space.

Interestingly, many of the design ideas have application to homes, in general; for instance wide and smooth walkways make a home look elegant as well as being accessible to wheelchairs and people on walkers, who, by the way, find rough surfaces difficult to maneuver. In addition to specifications for wheelchair ramps and illustrating ramp designs including one attached to an outdoor deck, the book describes several direct sidewalk-grading approaches that rise gradually up to the doorway or front landing. Getting into the house through keyless locks and lever door handles placed at wheelchair height makes opening the door that much easier for every child and also for the elderly. On the home interior, the use of curved walls, rather than 90-degree turns, and eliminating the 90-degree turn into a room by placing the door opening on an angle are creative ideas for almost any home not just the wheelchair bound family.

Where children are concerned, the successful home environment fulfills certain basic needs; (1) safety, (2) increased independence, (3) stimulates mobility, (4) provides privacy, (5) encourages interaction with other people, and (6), provides access to recreation and stimulation so the children can play and entertain themselves. Thinking about the home design begins in the early years of your child?s life. So, the book is ideal for families with young children because the early years are exactly the right time to start modifying the space so that the child can grow with as much independence as is possible.

With regard to Sensory Integration dysfunction, the home environment helps these children cope with their conditions, according to Hitzfelder. Sensory Integration dysfunction is a theory, postulated by Dr. Jean Ayres in the 1960?s and 70?s, to explain exaggerated motor and behavioral symptoms to sensory stimuli. Ayres postulated that some children with normal sensory input?vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, balance, and proprioception?display a variety of behavioral problems because of abnormal or dysfunctional sensory integration within the brain. In other words, these children behave as if the stimulus is different from what most people perceive. Such reactive children have been classified into two categories, (1)?avoiders? because the children generally try to avoid the sensory stimuli. For instance, they may panic at the sight of a vacuum cleaner because they associate the loud noise as a machine for sound- pain. True, children can have very sensitive hearing, and vacuum cleaner sounds may be too loud for them. But these children also avoid other stimuli such as rough materials. The (2) second group is called, ?seekers? because these children react in the opposite fashion. They don?t respond to sensory stimuli presented to them, and so they seek greater tactile contact with the stimulus. They are found doing things such as touching, patting, licking, rubbing, jumping, bouncing, and climbing everything and everywhere.

Research has identified sensory integration dysfunctions in children who have learning difficulties and in children with developmental problems, according to the Ayres Clinic web page, And yet, the symptoms in varying degree can also be seen in children, without any other apparent problems. Indeed, the condition by itself only becomes a problem if it interferes with the child?s daily life activities. Often, simply avoiding the stimuli helps alleviate the condition and even expedites the child?s ability to outgrow the problem. Eventually, most children learn to cope with their condition. And the home environment can be of tremendous benefit?simply to help eliminate the noxious elements.

Home design, in these cases, is very individual and dependent upon the symptoms in the child. Parents should seek professional help, perhaps by contacting the Easter Seal Society of Dallas for direction. Some general considerations include having lots of texture like rock walls (or conversely padded walls), rattan chairs, pillows, and carpeting for children who are seekers. Small prints, less dramatic color, and smooth flooring can be beneficial to avoiders. A recessed nook, one with a curtain for privacy, is a perfect hideaway for an avoider. And for the seeker, a front porch swing offers lots of texture and sensory stimuli. Write and wipe boards, especially on walls are beneficial outlets for all children.

Truly, adapting the home for all children is like building a haven for the universal child. A Home for All Children can be ordered from CABSR, Room 335 Campbell Hall, New Jersey Institute of Technology, University Heights, Newark NJ 07102-1982 or by calling 973-596-3097.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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