Justin Moehn’s vast amiibo collection, comfortable gaming chairs and a large screen set up in a very specific way in his Richmond bedroom are evidence of his highly focused affection for video games. Jess Faerman’s small apartment in Houston has a single chair she’s willing to sit on and a circular path for her compulsive need for pacing.
For Hannah Warren, who lives in Southeast Houston, a velvety soft covering on an air mattress and drops of lavender oil are her keys to a good night’s sleep, for now, anyway.
All three have autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, a developmental disability whose cause is still a mystery to researchers. As they, educators and parents all look for ways to cope in the classroom and at home, one thing they know for certain is that the right interior design can help children and adults manage the anxiety and behaviors that typically accompany autism, improving life for them and other members of their family.
Important elements include color, texture, lighting and the durability of furnishings, say parents and experts.
Don Lawrence, who works in health care facility planning at CannonDesign, comes to the topic with two points of view: one as a trained design planner and the other as a father of a 29-year-old son who has autism.
“Research has taken off in the last five years,” Lawrence said of both searching for information about cause, treatment and daily coping skills.
Lawrence, who lives in Sugar Land, had a background in health care when he returned to the University of Texas to study architecture years ago. Now he works exclusively in health care design planning, and recently finished work on an autism clinic at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in California.
“We did research on current thinking about interventions, primarily looking for ways to create a calming and relaxing environment. There’s a lot of research on color and sound and transitions from space to space,” Lawrence said, noting that design elements that work in a clinical setting work in homes and schools, too.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 59 children has a diagnosis of ASD, a number on the rise in part because of a broader definition and increased awareness. Children often get the diagnosis by age 3, and though there is no cure, early intervention can improve a child’s development.
How children and adults with ASD are affected can vary widely, from people unable to speak to others who are completely verbal. Some have intellectual disabilities while others are extremely intelligent. Some are good at managing behaviors, and others can have outbursts or meltdowns over something as simple as a toy being out of place or the irritating hum of a fluorescent light bulb. All struggle with social skills.
Color and light — both natural and artificial — are two important elements of home design, and they’re big factors in homes that have a child or adult with autism.
Lawrence explained that the slight flicker of a fluorescent light bulb, which are still used extensively in offices, stores and schools, can seem to a person with autism as the rest of us might see a strobe light. Imagine all of the homes built in the 1980s and 1990s with light boxes for fluorescent tubes over their kitchen islands — every one of them is a problem if someone in the household has autism.
Lawrence and special education consultant Robin Rettie of Lighthouse Learning & Resource both said that soothing colors are essential. In a bedroom, pale greens and blues with gray undertones are often talked about as calming colors — the same holds true for people with autism. Muted shades of lavender or purple also help calm people with ASD. Bright colors such as red, orange or yellow — colors you see often see in classrooms and toys for young children — appear so harsh that they can cause outbursts.
Nearly everyone with autism avoids bright lights. In Moehn’s bedroom — where he spends a good deal of his time — he has just a single bulb in the three-light ceiling-mounted light fixture and usually keeps the plantation shutters on his only window closed.
Rettie and Lawrence both said dimmable lights and bulbs with a warmer glow are best, so they can be adjusted for the affected person.
Texture is a huge factor — people with autism generally prefer soft, silky fabrics over anything rough or scratchy — so bedding and upholstery have to be chosen carefully. You don’t have to use them everywhere in your home, just in the autistic person’s bedroom — it’s advisable they have their own room — and in a place they like to sit when they’re with others.
Moehn, 37, who lives with his parents, treats his room as his own retreat, with satin sheets on his bed to help him sleep. Faerman, 33, who has her own apartment, puts a soft blanket on the only chair she will sit on in her apartment. The softness of the plush toys on her bed helps soothe her.
Janice Warren has struggled to help her daughter, 12-year-old Hannah, whose challenges change as she ages. She slept on a twin bed but wore it out — jumping on furniture can be an issue, so it needs to be more durable. While she looked for a new bed, she let Hannah sleep on an air mattress that had a soft, velvety cover. Her daughter was getting the best sleep she’d ever had, so she halted the new-bed search.
Warren has also incorporated aromatherapy, using plant-based lavender oil that helps calm her daughter, who is mainstreamed in school but not highly functional and has poor verbal skills. She adds the oil to shampoo and lotion and occasionally puts a couple of drops on her pillow and in dresser drawers, which, by the way, have labels for individual items that go in them.
Structure is vital for people with autism, so organizing systems help them cope. Knowing which shelf in a pantry, drawer in a refrigerator or container in a closet has their things fosters independence via daily living skills and is comforting. When things are out of place, though, it can be overwhelming, and the person may shut down or act out.
That’s one reason why clutter can send people with autism into a tailspin. For some, simply having art on a wall is a bother. A kitchen counter full of gadgets or toys scattered on a floor are problems.
Affirmations and reminders are important, so having bulletin boards or chalkboards for messages is a big need. Faerman keeps a whiteboard with reminders above her computer and an index card with a list of things she needs (phone, keys, wallet, inhaler and self-care stuff) on the inside of her apartment door.
Moehn’s room features things that reinforce his accomplishments: a certificate for perfect attendance his senior year in high school, a certificate in PC technical support he earned at Wharton County Junior College and artwork he’s proud of from elementary school.
They’re part of why he loves his room, and remind him of what he can do. Not long ago he started a part-time job at a mental health provider that treats children with autism.
“It shows employers that people like me can do a job,” Moehn said. “And I think it gives hope to parents who come in with their kids. Something is possible.”