Five important factors when designing for autism spectrum disorder in a pediatric environment

A strategic distribution of finishes combined with thoughtful approaches to lighting and acoustics can help a space feel comfortable, yet exciting

By Marissa Walczak, NCIDQ, IIDA / Special to Healthcare Facilities Today

Much progress has been made over the past ten years in recognizing the impact design and space can have on individuals with Autism. Designers can create spaces to help children and young people with autism cope with their surroundings and, therefore, learn effectively and live more happily. Below are five important factors to consider when designing for the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in a pediatric environment.

1. Finishes: Colors and material selections should establish a comforting, yet engaging environment for both children and staff using the space. While over-stimulation is a concern for those on the spectrum, lack of visual interest or variation can hinder growth and prevent acclimation to neurotypical environments found in the outside world. Therefore, finding a balance between the two is important. By strategically using color, such as associating a specific color to a specific room, children are encouraged to navigate independently. These key colors can also be utilized to reflect the degree of socialization or focus a space should have. Muted colors and a limited palette of pattern and texture work well for areas of higher concentration. Whereas more saturated colors and diversity in shapes and patterns are more fitting for interactive areas where exploration and communication are encouraged. In addition to color, wood-look materials and other finishes representative of nature, commonly referred to as biophilia, can be carried throughout the space to provide warmth and familiarity. Bright and shiny surfaces, busy patterns, and heavy textures should be limited in the overall finish palette.

In spaces of higher concentration, muted colors, indirect lighting, and acoustic finishes should be utilized to reduce potential distractions.

2. Lighting: When designing lighting in a room for children with ASD, the first consideration should be the type of fixtures being specified. The buzzing and flickering of traditional fluorescent fixtures can be a distraction or irritant for those with Autism and should be avoided. A more desirable approach is to layer lighting by combining dimmable indirect LED fixtures, natural daylight, and task focused fixtures. This approach provides softer ambient lighting and targeted lighting for areas where it is required. Indirect lighting can be achieved through cove lighting, wall washers, or uplighting through indirect pendants or wall sconces. Clerestory windows or gradient translucent window films at lower window heights allow sunlight into the room while obstructing outside visual distractions, keeping children more focused on the task at hand. This layered lighting approach also limits glare and reflectivity within the space, providing enhanced visual comfort.

3. Acoustics: While every day sounds and background noise may go unnoticed to the average person, this type of noise can be a trigger to individuals with hyper-sensitivities. Therefore, the type and quantity of acoustic treatments in a room can heavily impact how children with ASD experience a space. An acoustician can make recommendations on room acoustics and sound isolation based on acceptable sound levels. However, if hiring an acoustician is not an option, there are still a handful of ways to address acoustics. Two of the most impactful ways to reduce sound are through wall construction and selection of acoustic finishes. By extending wall construction to the deck and properly sealing and insulating, sound cannot transmit over the wall from room to room. Acoustic finishes can be applied in multiple ways. Flooring solutions like rubber or cushioned back resilient sheet products maintain a non-porous, easy to clean surface while also offering acoustic benefits compared to other rigid flooring alternatives such as VCT (vinyl composition tile). Breathable fabrics with high noise reduction and sound absorption properties are the best at addressing mid and high frequency sounds when used as wrapped wall panels. In addition to floor and wall coverings, ceiling treatments are also used to aid sound absorption. There are a variety of product offerings on the market: high-NRC rated ceiling tiles, spray treatments, acoustical deck, decorative baffles, clouds, and wood and wood-look perforated products.

4. Sensory Zoning: Sensory Zoning is the grouping of spaces into different stimulus zones, reflective of their varying degrees of activity, skill level, and sensory intensity. Classrooms and therapy offices generally fall under low-stimulus zones, while gymnasiums or cafeterias are identified as high-stimulus zones. It is important that transitions are provided between different sensory zones to allow children to recalibrate their senses. Spaces within or adjacent to rooms requiring higher concentration should also be used to assist with sensory zoning. For example, separated Snoezelen rooms can be designed to offer different types of stimulation (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, proprioceptive, etc). Whereas areas of respite within high concentration rooms allow children to mitigate sensory overload without being fully removed from the environment. This can be achieved by adding low partitions to break up a room, by adjusting the scale of different zones, or by creating nooks where variation and intensity of finishes and lighting are kept to a minimum. 

Color and finishes should be used strategically to create engaging spaces that encourage children to explore and grow. Areas of respite, such as corridor nooks, should be provided in spaces of higher stimulation to allow for sensory mitigation.

5. Safety: One of the most important considerations when designing for children is safety. Even for spaces with a 1:1 adult-child ratio, there is always the chance that a child is not under supervision. To protect children in these scenarios, the design must proactively eliminate risks such as sharp edges or potential launching pads. All wiring should be concealed with wire management and all exposed plumbing with protective shrouds. Decorative open stairways, while beautiful, can serve as an injury hazard for students with a risk of seizure, those with frequent tantrums, or for students with self-harming tendencies. Weighted furnishings can prevent older, stronger children from picking up and throwing furniture during times of aggravation while still allowing flexibility within the space that furniture bolted to the ground prohibits.

There are many factors to consider when designing for Autism Spectrum Disorder. A strategic distribution of finishes combined with thoughtful approaches to lighting and acoustics can help a space feel comfortable, yet exciting. Sensory zones should be established to help children adjust to different sensory experiences while also providing a safe environment that encourages them to navigate independently. While the design considerations outlined above will positively impact the design of spaces for Autistic children, these design considerations can also be implemented as best practice for all types of environments where children are a consideration.

Marissa Walczak, NCIDQ, IIDA, is an interior designer for E4H Environments for Health. For more information, visit

May 7, 2020

Topic Area: Architecture

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