Sensory Sanctuary: Designing for People on the Autistic Spectrum and ADHD
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
Designing a room for people on the Autistic Spectrum, or with ADHD requires a lot of thought into the important factors of living with such conditions. As someone with High Functioning Autism myself, I understand the needs of those who struggle with sensory overload and overstimulation of the senses. This is where I can help you to understand these needs and the helpful things you can include in your designs to assist those who need your help.
**Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert in Autism, or ADHD, but I do have Autism and I have worked with various children and adults who have these conditions; these are the things I've learned from those experiences. I am also basing most of my autism 'advice' on my own experiences, but I completely understand that the spectrum is vast and that these points will not apply to many forms of autism, or ADHD.
Sensory overload happens when all of the bodily senses become overwhelmed; when the brain overshares information with the senses and the body reacts by temporarily closing itself off to what is happening around it. In most cases (speaking from experience), sensory overload causes a rush of anxiety; all sounds and feelings become too much to cope with; lights suddenly seem brighter, voices are loud, music - too intense; anything that touches your skin feels uncomfortable and smells, or tastes and textures in the mouth can make you feel sick.
When my own sensory overload kicks in, I tend to go quiet for a while. It's as if my brain shuts down in order to repair itself. I struggle to speak during these moments; I have thoughts going through my mind and answers to whatever anybody is saying around me, but my brain won't let the words come out. It's like some kind of verbal paralysis and it's really difficult to control. People often mistake it for rudeness, moodiness or a lack of intelligence (depending on the situation). It can be embarrassing, uncomfortable and extremely frustrating.
The environments around us aren't often under our control; we can't decide what colours a person paints their walls, what lighting they put in place, or what music they play. It isn't always up to us where we choose to sit, what chair we are given, or what fabric we have to touch. We don't always get a say who we sit next to and we certainly can't control how they behave, or what volume they speak at.
But there are certain things we can do to help ourselves and those in our lives with Autism, or ADHD, especially when it comes to our own homes. In this blog, I'll be focusing on what can be done when designing a space for a child with either of these conditions. Be it a bedroom, a play room, or a quiet space for them to recover, these are the fundamentals of design for sensory needs and mental tranquility.
Colours in Sensory Design
Colours are a hugely important factor in design for any of us, but even more so for children on the spectrum. Bold, bright or highly saturated colours can cause issues for people who experience sensory overload. Bright whites, for example, could make the eyes sensitive in certain lights; a bright red could overstimulate a child with ADHD, while a bold yellow could raise anxiety. Too many neutrals could demotivate, or hinder a child's inspiration, causing them to feel bored and irritated, leading to unruly behaviour or a frustration they can't communicate properly.
Colour has an impact on us all, but for a child with overactive senses, or a tendency to feel anxious or inverted, the impact is far more severe.
A Spectrum for The Spectrum
When decorating for the spectrum, try to choose gentle hues.
Instead of bright whites, try a white with a grey base, or a tint of colour, such as 'apple white', 'rose white', or a calming cream. Neutrals and greys can also be used, of course, but try not to smother the room in neutrals alone. A little visual interest is important and colour is an essential part of our wellbeing.
Muted, less saturated colours such as sage greens, sky blues, or seaside teals can help with relaxation, slowing down the heart rate and helping us to feel closer to nature; while lavenders and pale orange hues, such as peach can help to comfort us. Dusky pinks can help us to feel balanced and soft, sunny yellows can make us feel optimistic; both of these shades can also help with creativity.
Of course, that's not to say some darker shades aren't also suitable; I'm autistic and I love dark colours in my rooms; I find them enveloping, cosy and comforting. However, perhaps for children, these lighter hues are best! An olive green with a white shade, or another colour (pink, for example) can work so well together though, and it still has the same relaxing effect that the lighter greens have. All greens relate to nature and that's why they help to relax us so much. They connect us to the outdoors, help us to feel grounded and reduce feelings of tension.
But colour isn't the only thing to consider when designing a room for a child on the spectrum. There are a whole ton of things that can help to make their space feel safe, comfortable and inspiring and in order to meet these needs, you need to consider all of the senses.
Here are some other things to include in your design:
Sight - Lighting & Visual Interest
Creating visual interest is an important factor for all children - whether they're on the spectrum or not; but for those with autism (or ADHD), finding something they can focus on and take pleasure in is vital. For these children, distraction comes easily. For some (those with ADHD), hyperactivity and low concentration can be an issue and for others (those on the spectrum), introversion or a lack of confidence could be the problem which prevents them from enjoying the things around them and their time at play. This being said, however, depending on the kind of autism a child has, pattern may be best avoided altogether (I was and still am absolutely fine with pattern... the more the better, but I know some children with more severe autism can become distressed with even a little visual stimulation!).
Therefore, when designing a space for these children, consider the things you place into the room; murals on the wall could create an interesting visual; for those children where pattern isn't an issue, a mural with hidden items for them to find, or one based around something they are fascinated with could be a good idea. Or, for children with ADHD, a chalkboard wall they can draw on that can be easily cleaned for another day. Bear in mind that too much stimuli for a child with ADHD could have a negative effect.
Artwork is another, more obvious way to create visual interest in a room; focussing on a child's fascination is a good way to keep them focussed and interested. Autism often means that a person does very well in a subject they are 'into'; we often become completely immersed in our interests, to the point of obsession. We know a lot about these subjects and can talk about them for hours; but when it comes to subjects we aren't so interested in, keeping the information within our heads becomes a challenge in itself.
It is therefore, very important to nurture an autistic child's passion; if they show a deep fascination in something, there's a high likelihood that hobby could become a career if it's encouraged and appreciated. Include their pursuits (and there could be few, or many!) in their decor and they'll be happy and comfortable.
Choosing the right lighting is something we do in every room, but for those who experience sensory overload, lighting can be a significant factor.
More than half of autistic adolescents have problems with visual processing, including light sensitivity and these deficits can increase autistic traits. I've been in rooms where I can hear the lighting buzzing louder than the people speaking and I've also been in many, many places where the lighting is just too bright for my eyes. I often have to wear sunglasses on an overcast day when I am going through sensory overload; everything is just heightened. So, learning about this and finding out what you can do to help it could make a huge difference to your child.
Fluorescent lighting is the worst for me; the sounds, the brightness and the incessant flickering can make me more introverted and anxious, causing my concentration to fail and my eyes to hurt, which then causes headaches and agitation.
There are plenty of ways you can help a child when choosing the lighting for autism or ADHD; use incandescent bulbs where you have to and as much natural lighting as is possibly available. Dimmer switches are a must for periods where lower light is needed and coloured mood lighting can be great for helping a child to relax or slow down.
Mood lighting can come in various forms, such as bubble tubes, fibre optics, and projectors; and mirror balls are a great way to bounce light around a room in a way that creates visual interest for the child.
In places where fluorescent lighting can't be avoided, or taken away, using coloured/filtered film or swags of fabric to diffuse the light can be a helpful way to take away glare and flickering.
When it comes to dressing windows, curtains are the best option. Slatted blinds can cause distracting shadows for a child with visual sensitivities. Window films are a good option to filter light and black out window treatments are a great way to ensure darkness when it's needed most.
Touch - Sensory Materials
For most autistic people, touch is a big thing; I've always been very tactile - feeling everything I look at in shops to see if I like it beyond its appearance. How it feels under my fingertips is very important and is usually a vital factor on whether or not I choose to buy something. The same goes for many people on the spectrum.
Soft, plush, luxurious fabrics, such as velvet, fleece, jersey and silk (among others), books with a soft laminated texture, deep pile carpets, super-soft fluffy rugs and anything super smooth, all bring a sense of calm. They feel nice on the skin, are comforting and bring pleasure. So finding out which materials to avoid when designing your autistic child's space will be a helpful way to make sure they feel comfortable.
For me, chalky surfaces, rough faux fur, hessian, itchy wool, hard-wearing carpets, or anything with a 'scratchy' surface instantly gives me a sense of repulsion; the feeling makes me recoil and having to spend too much time with this feeling can bring on anxiety and worsen the traits of autism.
Make sure bedding is cosy (warm in the winter and cool in the summer), carpets or rugs are soft, and anything with texture is nice on the skin.
Again, these things are different for each individual and some more severe levels of autism find a larger variation of textures helpful for learning and communication, which is why so many sensory toys rely on touch.
As autism awareness grows, we learn more and more about what to include in the rooms we create for those on the spectrum. Developments in sensory decor, toys and activities means that there are plenty of options for sensory materials that can be integrated into the design of a room these days.
From sensory liquid floor tiles, glow-in-the-dark ceiling stickers, canopies for children to use as a private den, light-up furniture and colour-changing LED floor shapes to climbing walls, therapy swings, body rollers and balance boards - there are tons of choices out there to explore the best
Sound & Smell - Keeping Things Calm
Many people with autism have high sensitivity to sound and smell; when a child becomes overwhelmed with sound, you will often see them covering their ears in an attempt to quieten the world around them - the same way we all hold our noses when we smell something we dislike.
When designing a sensory bedroom, you could include soundproofing in order to keep the room quiet and use a white noise machine and/or an aromatherapy diffuser to help at bedtimes.
For a sensory play area, there are options for sound play, such as sound activated wall panels, in which colourful images move around and change with the noises in the room, wall-mounted sound pads, musical footnotes and, of course, calming music and soundtracks.
Smells aren't as much of an issue as the rest of the senses, but we all like nice scents, don't we? I would therefore advise using eco-friendly paint brands when decorating for a child (with or without autism, or ADHD); eco-friendly brands are free from the harmful chemical smells other paints can have, meaning those with sensory overload will have one less thing to worry about when they are experiencing a struggle.
The same thing goes when buying online; some very cheaply made products can include very strong chemicals which can cause headaches and agitation; try to buy from official brands where the quality is assured, if possible, to limit the chance of getting inauthentic products.
Other Things to Consider
Organisation & Routine
Other conditions tend to go hand-in-hand with autism; depression, anxiety and OCD being a few. One clear trait of autism is the need for routine and organisation. Making sure there are plenty of neat storage options and having a clearly labelled, colour-coded or personalised system in place can help take away the stress of finding things tidied up and put in unexpected places when a child has become used to putting something a certain spot.
Routine cards can also be a great way to help a child with autism or ADHD to get used to doing daily tasks and activities without feeling anxious about the unknown. Consistency is key.
And I think that covers it!
I hope you found this helpful and informative. Many, many thanks for reading!
Lots of love!