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11 ways to make a house accommodating to a child with special needs

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Families of children with special needs are finally getting more of the attention and support they deserve. In 2017, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study took a closer look at the daily experiences of parents of children with autism. Researchers analyzed 174 couples who had a child with autism, comparing them to 179 couples who had a typically developing child, to continue to raise awareness and to develop better resources for parents of children with developmental disorders and disabilities.

Among the parents of children with special needs, researchers noted both vulnerabilities and strengths. Parents of children with autism spent 21 fewer minutes together per day, indicating more demands placed on their time. These parents may feel less intimacy. But they didn’t show any increase in negative interactions. Parents of children with autism felt equally supported by their partners as parents of typically developing children.

Many parents of children with special needs agree: Life with a child with disabilities can be different. A family of a child with special needs will have its own strengths, as this study showed. And they may also need to figure out how to better adapt to their environment. The nearly 2 percent of infants and toddlers, 5 percent of preschoolers, and 11 percent of children from ages 6 to 17 with disabilities in the U.S. can benefit from both early intervention and special education services, the Children’s Defense Fund confirms. Oftentimes, the earliest intervention for children with special needs begins by making changes at home.

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Get your house in order: 11 game-changing upgrades for kids with special needs

If you’ve found your dream home, and it isn’t modified for special needs, making these adjustments can help:

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1. Look for a bathroom on the main floor.

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The house-hunting phase is the perfect time for a parent to be picky. Finding a house with the right floor plan — or even with potential — could save you money on costlier renovations and upgrades.

“Accommodating a new home’s floor plan for a child with special needs may include designing a full bath and bedroom on the main floor, especially for those children who have difficulty navigating stairs,” Tammy Crosby of Direct From The Designers House Plans says. Upgrades to bathrooms may include “grab bars” by the toilet and a roll-in shower, engineered so that a wheelchair can turn around instead of a child having to step in and out of a tub.

If a roll-in shower upgrade is out of price range, consider a walk-in shower with a shower curtain. “Removing glass doors on a shower is ideal when you are making accommodations to your home for a child with a physical disability,” Rachel Galant, MS, OTR/L, occupational therapist at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago, says.

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2. Rethink furniture.

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Buying new furniture may be at the top of your new home decorating list. But for a child with special needs, safety plays a role in selection. Stanley P. Jaskiewicz, business attorney at Spector Gadon & Rosen P.C. and father of a 19-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome, says that when his son was younger, they opted out of formal furniture altogether.

Jaskiewicz instead focused on making an environment for his son that was both safe and attuned to his needs for sensory stimulation. “We consciously chose not to invest in new furniture (that would likely have been destroyed). Instead, we shopped at thrift stores and yard sales and purchased slip covers to make our furniture more presentable,” he says.

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3. Take a tour of the neighborhood.

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Parents or caretakers of children with special needs often worry about their child wandering off and getting lost, Sage Singleton, home and family safety expert for SafeWise, says. “This can be especially worrisome in a new home and neighborhood, when the child is unfamiliar with his or her surroundings. When moving to a new location, take a room-by-room tour of the new home, walk around the neighborhood, and show your child their route to and from school,” she explains.

Singleton recommends that parents identify a “safe location” or meeting space in case a child gets lost. “Parents might also consider using a GPS tracking device that can help monitor their child’s whereabouts,” she says.

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4. Show a child their new room.

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Making a move easier on the family means making the transition as smooth as possible. “Turn your child’s room into an oasis and safe space,” Singleton says. “To help alleviate stress in the home, create a bedroom where you can play calming music and allow your child to unwind — free from technology, TV, chores, or other sensory distractions.”

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5. Test sensory sensitivity triggers.

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It’s common for children with special needs to have sensory sensitivity. This can be heightened, Singleton says, when making a move. Especially when a new home isn’t equipped to meet a child’s needs. Singleton suggests walking through a new home with a child and assessing which areas may be a problem. “For example, if your child’s new room is too bright, consider installing black-out blinds to ease the stress of a new room and new home,” she explains.

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6. Redesign where needed.

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Unless a new home is handicap accessible, some renovations may be needed. Crosby recommends starting with the basics known to make daily life easier. Both bathroom and kitchen cabinets can be constructed at suitable height for wheelchairs, she says. Homes should also include a handicap ramp, preferably at both the entry and exit of the house. During renovation, if possible, doorways should be widened, rather than standard size, to allow ample room for walkers or wheelchairs. “On our website, we have a collection of handicap and special needs house plans to choose from,” Crosby says.

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7. Redo the floors.

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Hardwood or tile floors, without area rugs, work best for children with allergies and children who are using a wheelchair or walker. “Those surfaces reduce the risk of slips and falls. And they make it easier on a child’s joint and muscles to roll or walk around the home,” Mary Peer, PT MPT, physical therapist at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago, says.

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8. Label everything.

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For a child who can read — Jaskiewicz’s son, for example, is hyperlexic, which means he could read independently from a young age — posting signs around the house with instructions can be helpful. And for a child who can’t read, Jaskiewicz says the same concept can be used with pictures. “We also posted instructions on how to call for help to relatives and neighbors by the phone,” Jaskiewicz explains.

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9. Change the locks.

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Depending on a child’s age and ability, parents of special needs may also benefit from installing “easy open” locks at adults’ eye level. Jaskiewicz used these locks so that his son couldn’t get out without he and his wife knowing about it.  Jaskiewicz says, “We also included the basement and sump pump doors to prevent him from getting into areas that were more difficult to make safe.”

Gina Baker, a parent of a child with special needs and a coach to other parents at Spectrum Lane, also recommends installing monitors or cameras to help parents keep an extra eye on a child.

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10. Swap out the door handles.

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Lever-type door handles may be a better choice than round door handles when it comes to grip, benefiting a child with hand differences or coordination issues. As an occupational therapist, Galant recommends lever handles to the families of the children she works with because they’re easier to use.

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11. Consider individual needs above all.

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Minor to major changes may be needed to make a home more accommodating to a child with special needs. But attention to individual ability comes first. “A home is a place where one should feel safe and unparalleled freedom,” Baker says. “For example, an autistic child may be sensitive to certain types of light. And light filters or soft settings are helpful. A child with limited physical capabilities might cope better with most rooms on a single floor and perhaps some creative transportation between rooms. I have seen ceiling-based type transportation or a train used.” Singleton recommends creating a safe space in a child’s room, while Baker suggests setting up an additional sensory room to provide extra space.

Some of the most helpful upgrades to make a house friendlier to a child with special needs range from free to pricey.

Thankfully, some financial assistance is available to home buyers who may need to make modifications that have not been provided by the seller. Resources include Medicaid Waiver Programs, the USDA Rural Housing Home Repair Loan Program, Weatherization Assistance Programs, and more.

Buyers who need to make renovations may also be eligible for the HomeStyle® Renovation mortgage. This loan program is designed for borrowers intending to purchase a home that needs upgrades or refinance an existing mortgage to include renovation. A renovation home loan or refinance may be further protected by Section 203(k) Rehab Mortgage Insurance, with coverage available for minor upgrades (of at least $5,000) to total reconstruction. A lender who understands your family’s needs can walk you through the loan options and application process.

Whatever your family’s unique home buying needs may be, we’re in your corner. Start by reaching out to a loan officer to get prequalified and find out how much house you can afford. Then, you can use our free LoanFly app for the complete mortgage experience — to shop for an accommodating house within your budget.

For educational purposes only. Please contact your qualified professional for specific guidance.

Sources are deemed reliable but not guaranteed.