Designing a Safe Space for an Autistic Child

by Jacqueline Salgado, edited by Kelsey Betancourt

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Designing a calm environment for children with autism can seem like a daunting task. While every child is different and may react differently to certain environments, there are five key design points to consider in order to successfully achieve a calm and structured space. 

Layout

Consider the scale of the space. What do you want to integrate in the room? One way to successfully choose what you want to include in the room is knowing your child’s needs, and paying close attention to how your child responds to an environment. How do you want your child to navigate through the space? Start the layout by placing the furniture on the sides of the room and leaving the middle open to navigate. This layout is not only simple, but easy for the child to move around the room. When placing the furniture on the sides, the child is able to easily access things he/she needs within the room, fostering independence.

Often children with autism are more comfortable in rooms with clear divisions. Consider subdividing rooms and allowing for reconfiguration. Plan easy storage for items so they can be cleared away easily when not in use.

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Noise
Noise is another aspect of designing a room that is often forgotten about but is essential when designing a space for a person with autism. Children with autism are sensitive to loud noises, and sometimes cannot filter them out. This may cause anxiety, affecting the way the child behaves on a daily basis. There are simple ways to prevent background noise from filtering in. Start by pinpointing what background noises you can easily hear from the room that may cause discomfort to your child.

Keep the background noise out by integrating small fixes. Try applying acoustic panels to your walls. This not only brings down the noise, but it can be used as a discrete and functional decorative element. 

If the first option is not something that would be convenient, another way to bring the noise down would be to replace any hardwood flooring with carpet. Not only is carpet recommended for children with autism because it reduces the chance of your child getting hurt and prevents lighting glare, but also because carpet keeps noise from echoing throughout the room. 

If damping the noise is not possible, try adding pink noise. Similar to white noise, pink noise may improve memory and be better at gently drowning out disturbances. 

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Lighting
Lighting can have a strong effect on someone’s mood. Just as we can be affected by specific lighting, children with autism are often hyper sensitive, therefore specific lighting should be considered when integrating fixtures. One thing to stay away from is fluorescent lighting. Fluorescent lighting is known to flicker and depending on the wattage and lamp type, can be extremely bright. The flickering is not only distracting, but it is known to cause eye strain, headaches, and migraines. Opt for a fixture with diffused lighting or a fixture with adjustable settings in a neutral, unsaturated color. Being able to dim the light can make a difference for someone’s mood. 

Color
Choosing the right color for the room is an essential step. Choose light, neutral colors. Just as bright lights can affect the mood of the child in a negative way, certain colors can have similar effects. Colors to stay away from are anything bold or dark. Although primary colors tend to be the norm when choosing room colors for children, it is not the case when choosing a room color for a child with autism. Bold colors are allowed in small accents, such as their toys. 

In addition, wallpapers with busy patterns or stripes can be distracting for your child. Be especially careful to choose a paint that is non-toxic and does not off-gas, to keep your child safe. Try pale blues, soft greens, light purples, and pale pinks for room color options. 

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Privacy
Research has shown the benefits of a sensory room (or space) for kids with autism. These spaces allow children to feel safe. There are certain things that can be integrated into a sensory room in order for the child to feel better. As stated previously, layouts are important. If it is not possible to dedicate an entire room, a corner of a room can be reserved specifically to be the “sensory room", which can be done by separating the space with a dark curtain. The idea is to make a place the child can feel comfortable and stress free. Items such as a bean bag, or a sensory pea pod sold online can help a child feel comfortable and safe.

With these simple ideas in mind, your home can be a safe place for both you and your autistic loved one. 

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Photos by Chas Metivier, Steven Dewall

Undertaking a broad range of projects, all of which are grounded in smart design and mindful of healthy living, Sarah Barnard’s diverse body of work includes upscale private residences, chic restaurants, luxurious spas and impressive corporate headquarters. Her projects have been featured in local and national publications, and have placed prominently in several noted design competitions. Sarah holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Claremont Graduate University as well as undergraduate degrees in Art and Interior Architectural Design. Her interior design practice is the culmination of education and interests in art, architecture, textiles and the environment and she has written several articles for important publications including the USGBC, United States Green Building Council.

Sarah is intrigued by clients who have unusual requests and lives for a challenge. She hasn’t met one yet that she didn’t like. Sarah loves designing for anyone with pets! She adores people who are avid collectors of anything they love. Sarah is often retained by clients who have never worked with an interior designer because they thought designers weren’t for them (until now). She is known for delivering, on time, all the time. Sarah is incredibly down to earth and people love her for her frankness. Sarah and her staff will do just about anything for a client, build a custom sunroom for the kitties, organize and alphabetize boxes in the garage, take the kids out shopping for their own bathroom tiles…

Barnard is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), is certified by the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), and is recognized by the International WELL Building Institute as a WELL Accredited Professional (WELL AP), the International Institute for Bau-Biologie & Ecology as a Building Biology Practitioner (BBP) and by the United States Green Building Council as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional (LEED AP). She has served on the Santa Monica Conservancy's board of directors and specializes in sustainable interior design, health and wellness and historic preservation.