Using color and common-sense strategies to relax and nurture kids with special needs.
Savvy designers worth their salt know that red rooms can evoke feelings of excitement and anger, while blue rooms tend to calm us down. They know that natural light is linked to productivity, while excessive levels of artificial light can spark annoyance. And they know that while clutter intensifies anxiety, order can have the opposite effect.
This may be basic knowledge, but design professionals are increasingly applying it to a unique population: children with special needs — particularly those with attention disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As more and more children are diagnosed, the need for adaptive design — often using the most fundamental design tools — has never been greater.
The practice of designing for these children can be tricky because “‘special needs’ is such a broad term. You can’t really write a prescriptive book on it,” says Barbara Miller, ASID, NWSID, GREEN AP, of Barbara Miller Design in West Linn, Ore. A co-author of the ASID white paper Researching Home: Evidence-Based Residential Design, Miller is the founder of YES Spaces, which provides design services for children’s rooms. She is also the mother of five, including a 15-year-old son whose acutely sensitive behavior over the years has defied labeling and presented Miller with challenges. “Even if you just narrowly focus on kids with autism, you’ll find that they react differently, or they can tolerate different levels of color, sound and pattern,” describes Miller.
Both ASD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affect a child’s verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction skills and behavior. It’s in the arena of behavior that designers can make the most difference.
“As designers, we design to our experience. These children don’t have the same experience; their sensory modalities are off. They experience colors and textures differently,” explains AJ Paron-Wildes, Allied ASID, LEED AP ID+C, a senior A&D manager for Allsteel, Industry Partner of ASID, and mother of a child with ASD. “What you want to do is create an environment that is not a barrier to whatever they need to do.”
“Colors appear more vibrant to these kids so we have to be very careful of the colors we choose,” says color consultant Denise Turner, ASID, CID, CMG, whose company focuses on the psychology of color. “Red can be very disturbing, and any environment with too much stimulus can wreak havoc on neurologically-delayed minds,” she cautions.
“I’ve done a lot of classes on the physiology side of color, and I’ve gotten many calls from parents having problems with kids who can’t focus,” says Turner. “For the most part, the coolest colors, blues and greens are best for kids with autism. We’ve also found that pink calms them down.”
What’s even more important than a color, however, is its value. Muted tones are preferred over rich, vibrant tones. “The research shows that while color affects people, it’s more the saturation and brightness of a hue that can impact the way they feel,” explains Turner.
It’s well known that natural light enhances productivity in the workplace, but it also helps kids focus, both at home and in school. “It’s a shame that so many schools are now mandating [more economical] fluorescent lighting,” says Turner, who cites multiple studies showing its negative effects. She advises parents should to use LED lighting whenever possible, as it’s the closest thing to natural sunlight.
Pattern and Texture
Children who struggle with focus do better in spaces devoid of busy, repetitive patterns. Whether on walls, window treatments or bedcoverings, “patterns should be organic and minimal,” says Turner. “Less pattern overall is better, but when selecting patterns for this population you should go with those that are non-defined, more organic shapes, like leaves and sticks. Super-strong graphic images can be too overstimulating.”
As to texture, some children on the spectrum prefer cool, smooth surfaces, while others react favorably to warm and fuzzy textiles. Knowing that soft fabrics and a sense of enclosure helped her son relax, Miller designed a headboard that is upholstered on two sides. “It’s perfect because he can retreat into it and feel sheltered,” she says.
Space and Order
A common trait among ASD children is an obsession with order; some spend hours lining up toys instead of playing with them. So it helps to design an organized room, one in which there is a place for everything. Says Turner: “Parents tell me it’s always better to unclutter a child’s environment, to make it easier for them to move around and to put things away.”
Paron-Wildes applied that principle when she consulted on the redesign of the MIND (Medical Investigation of Neurological Disorders) Institute, a research center at the University of California at Davis. Housed in an old building, the MIND Institute was dark and difficult to navigate, says Paron-Wildes. “The blood draw station, for instance, was designed as a corral and it didn’t work at all,” she remembers. “My son was a patient there and he totally flipped out when we reached that area.”
After the redesign, the facility was filled with natural light, seating was upholstered in subdued shades of blue, open spaces were defined by room dividers constructed of blonde wood, all providing order and privacy for families — and Paron-Wildes’ son no longer minded “going to the doctor.” During the designer’s informal post-occupancy interviews, a woman who worked the front desk told her “she couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was more volume, more light and the families loved it.”
At home or away, at the end of the day, a fundamental tenet of good design comes into play: Listen to the client. “My philosophy doesn’t change when it comes to special needs,” says Miller. “I try to identify the individual’s unique needs and get input from them as much as possible. I ask open-ended questions such as ‘what do you love in your room?,’ and ‘what do you wish was different?’ If a child is nonverbal, then I interview the parents. They really know their child better than anyone.”
Paron-Wildes agrees. “Everyone is unique. Parents are told all the time that therapists and caregivers are the experts. But they’re not. Parents are the ones dealing with it every day. They can tell you what’s happening, but not necessarily how to fix it.”
That’s where an intuitive — and educated —designer comes in. “A parent will say they can’t get out the door because their child has to step on every square of a checkered floor,” says Paron-Wildes. “They may resort to using another exit, to avoid walking through the room, when the simplest solution really is just to put down a different floor.”
Maria LaPiana is a freelance writer with a special interest in interior design and architecture. She writes from her home in Newtown, Conn.