Throughout my career I’ve helped countless frustrated parents of autistic children to make empowering color choices for their kids’ environments. My experiences of getting to know these families inspired me to research the effect of color on people with ASD and to offer solutions for creating colorfully harmonious environments.
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, it’s imperative that parents and design professionals be aware of the specific requirements for this growing population. Special consideration needs to be given when selecting colors, finishes, lighting and storage.
Does your child avoid a certain room in the house or an area of his classroom? The culprit may simpler than you think. Your child may be avoiding these areas because they’re too colorfully decorated.
ASD children and adults tend to have heightened senses. Sights, sounds, smells, touch, sunlight, changes in barometric pressure, and--you guessed it--color, can have various pronounced effects on people with autism.
It’s been theorized that people with ASD may have higher sensitivity to color differentiation than non-autistic people. This explains how subtle differences in a color’s hue can affect people with autism. As someone who spends her days creating color palettes and deciphering the minute differences between hues, I’m enthralled with exploring the color abilities of people with autism. This heightened sense of color comes as no surprise, considering research which suggests that people diagnosed with ASD interpret sensory experiences with greater intensity than their neuro-ordinary peers. In other words, for people with autism, sounds are louder, touch is more acute, smells are stronger, lights are more glaring, and colors are more colorful.
Because of their heightened senses, people with autism also frequently have difficulties with sensory integration. Since they often have difficulty decoding verbal cues, they rely on their visual senses to tell them what is happening. Here’s another important fact that we need to keep in mind when selecting colors for children’s spaces:
"One can think of autism as a brain impairment, but another way to view autism is as a condition where the balance between different brain processes is impaired," says Duje Tadin, a co-author of the study in the Journal of Neuroscience. "That imbalance could lead to functional impairments, and it often does, but it can also result in enhancements."
What are the best colors for autistic children? First of all, just like all children, children with autism are individuals. They react differently to their environment and can tolerate varying levels of color, sound and patterns. Just like the rest of us, they have color preferences and different emotional responses to different colors. However, there are a few colors that tend to be better suited for children with autism, as well for almost everyone else. If your child is very sensitive to color stimuli, for instance, then toned down colors are best.
Researchers have found that autistic children’s rods and cones (components of the eye) vary from the non-autistic child’s due to chemical imbalances or neural deficiencies. Colors appear more vibrant to autistic children. Of the autistic children tested, 85% saw colors with greater intensity than non-autistic children.
Red is a very powerful color. But for someone with ASD, red can look fluorescent or even vibrate with intensity. It can be painful to your child or can even make him angry.
White reflects all colors that surround it. For children with autism, bright white can be so overwhelming that it can hurt their eyes. Bright white surfaces in particular can be overwhelming, especially if the surfaces are highly reflective. These kinds of surfaces can cause eyestrain and agitation.
Green means go! Step on the gas and full speed ahead. Greens are the safest colors for ASD. Greens bring balance and harmony to any environment. According to child psychologist Lynne Harrison, soft green is one of the best colors for environments of autistic children.
Blue is an instant de-stresser. The colors of water are cool, calm, and peaceful. It’s no mystery why blue is the number one favorite color of people around the globe. The soothing, non-threatening aspects of blue are generally ideal for autistic children.
Pink comforts and subdues. Although color preferences vary among individuals, studies have shown that many autistic children prefer light hues of pink.
Studies show that environments with too many sensory stimuli on walls, floors and counter surfaces can wreak havoc on the minds of individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. The solution: declutter! Disorganized, cluttered environments make it difficult for most people to concentrate, but this is an especially common challenge for autistic children. For this reason it’s essential that their space be simplified.
The safest way to introduce new colors in your child’s environment is to do it slowly. Observe and note any behavior or emotional changes when the new color is introduced.
Monochromatic color schemes (different tints and shades of the same color) instantly create a peaceful environment. For example: light brown, medium brown and dark brown.
Analogous color schemes (three colors side by side on the color wheel) create balance. For children with ASD, consider cooler colors, such as blue, blue-green, and green, or blue, blue-violet and violet.
Complementary color schemes (two colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel) create maximum contrast. For example: red and green, or blue and orange. Complementary color schemes can be extremely stimulating and as a general rule, are less ideal in spaces for those with ASD.
Patterns & Texturers
As with color, pattern and texture preferences also differ from person to person. If your child struggles to concentrate, then it is helpful to reduce the amount of visual stimuli in his environment. Many autistics do better in spaces free of busy, repetitive patterns.
Whether on walls, window treatments, or bed coverings, the ideal patterns are minimal, organic, or subtle abstracts. The patterns that tend to work best are less busy overall, such as non-defined, more organic shapes, like leaves and sticks. Super-strong graphic images can be too overstimulating.
As for texture, some children prefer warm and fuzzy textiles while others prefer cool, smooth surfaces.
Space & Order
A common trait among people with autism is the preoccupation, and in
some cases obsession, with order. Some autistic children will spend hours lining up toys instead of playing with them.
For these children, simplifying and reducing the amount of stimuli is highly important. The best way to support children with these needs is to design an organized room where everything is put in its place. Keeping books and toys out of sight will reduce clutter. An organized room can also stimulate verbal requests from the child.
Convincing children to go to sleep can be challenging. This challenge is especially common with autistic children. Since the bedroom is the space in which we spend the most time, while sleeping, it’s the most important room to get the colors right.
Ideally, the bedroom should be a place where your child is able to feel calm and relaxed. The environment should be conducive to rest and a good night's sleep. Jarring colors, textures, or visual distractions can prevent this from happening, while softer colors and textures can create a restful place. To begin with, avoid using bright, primary colors. Consider using, soft, tranquil cool colors such as purples, blues and greens. For most people, these colors typically have the most soothing effect.
Furniture should be bolted to the wall or be heavy. Bean bag chairs may be an inventive solution for seating; however, these are dangerous due to the risk of suffocation.
When it comes to flooring choices, carpeting is recommended for its safety traits and noise reduction capacity. Invest in a carpet that has allergen, anti-microbial, and easy to clean features. Another option is a hardwood floor, covered with a rug with allergen, anti-microbial and easy to clean features.
Window blinds and drapes, with their multitude of lines, can be distracting. Blinds tend to work best. It’s best to do an inside mount (in the window frame). For a more uniform look, paint the window frame the same color as the wall. Better yet, match the room’s paint color to the blind’s color.
For parents of an autistic child, convincing their child to eat can be one of the biggest challenges. Due to their highly sensitive palates, many children with autism are extremely selective with their food choices.
Consider using accents of reds and oranges in your dining areas. Another helpful color tool is to have a special plate that separates the foods in these energizing colors. Many children with autism prefer their different foods not to touch each other. Reds and oranges stimulate the appetite, which is why it’s the predominant color scheme used by fast food chains.
But before you paint your dining room red from head to toe, slowly introduce red. If you already know that red is a triggering color for your child, then try yellows and oranges. Another word of caution: if you yourself are working on maintaining or losing weight, you may want to limit reds and oranges in the dining room.
It’s a well known fact that natural light is linked to productivity, while excessive levels of artificial light can spark annoyance. It’s concerning, for instance, that so many schools are now mandating (more economical) fluorescent lighting, when we know these kinds of lights have multiple negative effects.
The right lighting is an extremely important consideration, since glare, noise, and flickering can create sensory havoc. Whenever possible, use LED lighting. It’s the closest thing to natural sunlight and it helps kids focus, both at home and in school.
Ambient or diffused lighting typically reduces glare. If your child tends to have frequent episodes, try putting dimmers on the light switches to create softer lighting. Many parents have shared with me that the simple act of dimming the lights in a room where their child is having an episode shortens the duration of the episode.
Denise Turner, ASID,CID,CMG is a colorist and certified interior designer. She’s an author, speaker, color and design trend forecaster, product designer and president of the Color Turners.
She also specializes in using color to create harmonious spaces for children with autism.
Turner is an ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) professional member, Certified Interior Designer, CMG (Color Marketing Group) Board of Director, former ASID chapter president, and UCLA graduate.
Photo by, Steven Libralon