Let’s talk about zoning your home to support your kids with autism. This strategy works well for a lot of families. We’re not talking about zoning for construction or renovation. Zoning your home for success is a lot more simple than that. Setting up zones in your home can help your child with autism understand their environment better. Zones help identify expectations for appropriate behavior, so you don’t have to. Zoning your home will take some time, trial, and error to set up. But, it pays dividends for a lot of families in peace and efficiency.
You should consider zoning your home if:
1. Your child responds well to zones in another environment (such as at school or in their ABA clinic)
2. Your child is more calm when there are less distractions in the environment
3. Your child responds well to visual cues or signals (like a picture of a toothbrush and bathtub on the bathroom door, or a picture of shoes on the door to the backyard)
4. Your child demonstrates signs of stress in new or confusing environments
5. Your child has difficulty staying on track with routines when you are not present to direct them
6. Your child seems overwhelmed by lots of verbal directions
What is Zoning?
Zoning is setting up your home so that each area is clearly divided by purpose. There are many ways to zone. Here are some examples:
1. Zone by room: this is the most common way for lots of families to zone. This is because it follows the natural layout the home already has. Zoning by room means making the purpose of each room clear: the bedroom is for sleeping. The dining room is for eating. The playroom is for playing. The office is for homeschool or remote learning. The kitchen is for cooking or baking. It’s helpful to keep as many rooms as possible having only one purpose. That way it’s easiest for everyone to understand and follow the expectations of routines for each room.
2. Zone by area: this is the way a lot of teachers zone within their classrooms. Zoning by area is a great way to workaround small spaces like apartments. It can also work well for homes with open floor plans. Additionally, zoning by area can work well for families with multiple children sharing bedrooms. In zoning by area, clear visual markers are used to divide spaces within the same room by purpose and by person. For example, your dining area might be for homeschool or remote learning AND mealtimes. An easy way to zone the dining room by area is to use two colorfully distinct tablecloths. One tablecloth can be used during school time and one can be used during mealtimes.
3. Zone by materials: zoning by materials is another way to maximize a small space. This is also helpful when you have a lot of spaces in the home that need to function for multiple purposes. Zoning by materials means limiting what you put in a room to one purpose and storing everything else. For example, you might want your child’s room to function as a supervised play space during the day. But, you need to remove distractors at night in order for them to fall (and stay) asleep. Zoning by materials is a relatively simple way to deal with this. Select the toys that you want to be available during playtime, and put them in plastic storage bins that are easy to move around. Move the toy bins to the garage or another room at night. Bring them back out the next day when it’s time to play.
How to Zone:
Now that you understand why zoning can be useful, you might want to try it in your own home. Here is a brief outline of the process to use to set up zones. You can modify this checklist depending on what type of zoning you are doing. Additionally, there is no need to limit yourself to one of the three types of zoning described above. You can mix and match according to what works best for you and your family. One strategy might work well for certain rooms in your house. Another might work especially well for one floor. Also, you can zone according to other methods as well. The methods listed here are just a start!
Checklist to Zone:
1. Review each step of your daily routine. Are there areas where your child with autism seems confused or overwhelmed? Could adjusting the environment help?
2. If yes, identify the room associated with the routine or activity.
3. What is in the environment now? Take the time to actually visit the room and look around. You might be surprised by what you find. Often, things you have learned to overlook each day could be distractors for your child. Make a list of what is in the room. Mark the things that don’t serve the primary purpose or purposes of the room.
4. Clear out the things that are not necessary. See how your child responds.
5. If more adjustments are needed, make a plan. You may need to obtain additional materials – such as the multi-colored tablecloths or plastic storage bins mentioned above.
6. Teach your child how to use the room and its contents now. This is the most important step. It’s likely that your child will need at least some coaching on what to do in the room, now that you’ve cleared out distractors. They will need clear expectations about any new materials you introduce. You can also take this opportunity to reset expectations about behavior that is expected in the room in general. You do not need to use the word “zones” when you do this teaching. Use whatever communication system and vocabulary is easiest for your child to understand.
7. Monitor your child’s response to the newly adjusted environment, and continue to make adjustments as necessary.
Now you are ready to zone!
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.