“Growing up as an autism sibling was not easy and there was a lot of things I never understood, but as an adult I’ve learned how to find gratitude for the journey.” Natalie Castro
By Ron Sandison
Autism and sensory issues makes living space important to me. Home is a place for me to decompress and recharge. When I was six-years-old, I became obsessed with the book No Man’s Valley written by Laura McCarley, and the 1981 animated, special movie based on the book. In my bedroom, I built my own No Man’s Valley with a blanket covering a coffee table. On top of the table was a moving animal train and a watchtower composed of Legos. This utopia was complete with all my favorite critters including Prairie Pup.
When I experienced fear or anxiety, I entered No Man’s Valley through its blanket door, and I felt calm. No Man’s Valley was a stress-free environment where I could hide away from the world and read and write my creative animal adventures.
Thirty years later I live in an apartment with my wife and daughter and I still have a Man-Cave at my parents’ home with a library of over 5,000 books and a toy collection from around the world.
I was excited to interview Natalie Castro, an autism real estate specialist, that helped me gain insight on creating homes to meet neurodivergent children’s sensory and development needs.
1. What was your childhood like having a sister with autism?
Being a sibling to my younger autistic sister, Angie, I remember our home looking and feeling chaotic. I felt overwhelmed by therapists constantly coming in and out of our home. At first, I thought my sister hated me. I knew she was different and that she had a difficult time with communication. It wasn’t until I was 9 years old and her speech therapist helped me understand her communication that I started to have a better relationship with Angie. When she was young she was very aggressive and her speech therapist taught me how to play with Angie using Picture Education Cards (PEC). By attending all of Angie’s therapy secessions, I learned how she processes information and better ways to help her communicate.
2. What are some of your favorite childhood memories with your sister Angie?
When Angie was little and wanted to play tea party with me and I remember letting her play and I would just be next to her and join in. Living in Florida, we went often to Disneyworld and this was our favorite place. Angie did not do well in malls but she did great at Disneyworld because she knew the characters and loved them. We also had a great time going to the pool.
3. How did your parents help your sister develop social skills?
My parents enrolled Angie in summer camps, therapy programs, and schools that helped her gain social skills. Angie learned best by modeling behaviors. Our church had a program Best Buddies and this provided her with a companion which she loved! My parents listened to the therapist’s ideas and learned as they went by taking one day at a time and trying new activities.
4. What is your educational background and how has it empowered you to help Angie and others with autism?
In college I studied many modalities to help me understand more about autism from ABA therapy, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy, special education, recreational therapy, and physical education. Having a variety of modalities to study helped me understand how these professions help children in a full circle. It also empowered me to understand sensory processing and how the autistic mind operates.
5. How has your sister inspired you to be an autism advocate?
When she was younger, no one understood her. She spoke through a communication device and would only use the devise if it had my voice. I was 8 years old, recording my voice during recess on her communication device. I made it my mission to help Angie find her voice. I also become an advocate by participating in Best Buddies and helping other children with autism.
6. What are three ways you have advocated for Angie?
The three ways I’ve advocated for my sister are: school, social settings, and home. I instructed Angie’s teachers about her learning and sensory needs and helped her with homework. I advocated for her IEP’s to provide support and resource she would need to thrive in school. Social settings by fun activities in variety of environments. Finally, I advocated in the home by teaching Angie basic skills for independence like how to grocery shop and wash dishes.
7. Share a humorous autism memory.
My favorite humorous autism memory was Angie calling me an asshole in the perfect context; it was a bonding moment. After I taught Angie how to shave her legs, she loved the sensory feel of shaving and wanted to do it every day. To keep her from damaging her skin, I would only let Angie shave every other day. When she tried to shave on her off day, I took the razor from her and she yelled, “You’re an asshole.”
8. What are some challenges Angie’s experienced transitioning into adulthood?
I became a co-guardian to my sister at the age of 26 and went from thinking like a sibling, to serving the role of a parent. We experienced a lot as a family, but I would say her toughest time was transitioning out of school and receiving services. Not a lot of social groups for adults. One way it could be easier for young adults to transition is more social groups and fun activities.
9. What sparked your career path into real estate and design for autism families?
When Angie became an adult and aged out of high school, I realized the importance of home designs. We now had her full time at home and realized that she needed more independence around the house. Creating a home routine with work outs, meal prepping, cleaning her room, helping with house chores and her self-care was a challenge. I began to adapt our home to help Angie become more independent.
I recognized that the layout of our home did not serve Angie’s independence. Helping Angie, sparked the interest, but it wasn’t until 2020 as I was watching HGTV and said, “Why isn’t anyone teaching special needs families how to design their home to help their child’s development?” That’s when the light bulb went off and I realized that we weren’t the only family having a struggle with this, so I decided to get a real estate license and help other families.
10. What are some ways you can design homes to help children with autism reach his or her milestones?
Each child requires a variety of needs in the home such as a room for a sensory gym, pool for sensory needs, backyard for jungle gyms for their gross motor skills, different work spaces for therapists to come over but also giving the siblings a space for them; the list is limitless. The bedroom is the first room to start with. Each child has a unique communication style and being able to sit down with their therapists to go over their goals is the most important part. Helping families use their child’s team to design their home is essential. The living room is great place for comfort and the kitchen to develop life skills like cooking or making a grocery list.
11. What questions should a parent ask when considering to buy a home?
Some good questions to ask when considering a home, “Where can we live that will support our child’s needs?” “What kind of home should we buy to help promote our child toward independent living? Which city has recreational activities that she or he can enjoy periodically? Which layout would be the best for us?” When considering these questions keep in mind the resources your child will need in the next 5-7 years.
12. How did you design your home to meet Angie’s needs?
I designed different areas in our home for Angie to develop independent living skills such as the laundry room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. A swing chair in her bedroom to provide sensory regulation with fluffy pillows. We decorated our living room sofa with a cute designed weighted blanket and textured pillow.
13. What makes Utah a good state for people with autism to live?
Lots of activities and easy access to nature! Mountains and landscape is beautiful and provide a peaceful environment and the police have autism training.
14. What cities would you recommend for people with autism to live and why?
It’s not the city I would recommend as it is the resources that are provided for your child’s needs. When considering a city to live consider what resources are available. You can gain this information by talking with other families who have a child with autism and doing research.
15. What are some topics you discuss on your podcast and what are some projects you are currently working on?
I’m currently working with a hospital to create a sensory friendly ER treatment room and will be training their ER nurses how to work with children on the spectrum. For every 3 homes I sell, I design and fund a sensory room. Topics I discuss on my podcast include real estate, design and coaching.
Natalie Castro’s BIO
Natalie Castro is an autism friendly interior designer, who specializes in creating spaces for your child’s developmental milestones. Natalie has an exclusive home buying program for autism families that includes community resources, a meeting with your child’s multidisciplinary team and more. She is here to guide you and your child through the whole relocation process. You can contact her at email@example.com. Her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/piecesbynataliecastro
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society ofAmerica. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom, published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron’s third book Views from the Spectrum was released in May 2021.
Ron frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016.
You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org