Creating special spaces

Colors & Autism

Colors, patterns and tactile material selections require critical consideration in designing for environments for special needs children and adults. These items can create problems with sustained attention yet, when applied tactically, can draw focused attention and provide opportunities for wayfinding. Minimizing any offending stimuli can help improve autism spectrum students’ ability to perform successfully. For others with intellectual disabilities, bright colors can offer successful stimulation and help create directed concentration . Patterns can be used to help guide students through a space by clearly defining circulation paths. Multi-sensory stimulation can also assist with sensory-deprived brains and has been shown to improve sociability amongst some individuals. Finally, cheerful colors, whether subtle or bold depending on user population, eliminate the users’ and visitors’ impression of institutionalism that is of utmost importance in promoting esteem for this community.


Extensive research over the years has shown general health risks from harmful chemicals used in many building products and practices. Those with, or at risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or other chronic diseases, may be especially vulnerable to some toxins. Many children suffer from an impairment that reduces the body’s normal ability to get rid of toxins and heavy metals. Research has shown that a build-up of such toxins in the body can potentially lead to nervous system damage and developmental delays and can even chronically affect brain function.

Some individuals with special challenges are extremely sensitive and reactive to noxious substances. Research dollars have only recently started to support a more systematic evaluation of environmental toxins as possible risk factors for ASD. There is a need to take seriously the harm caused by various combinations of factors and to develop more sophisticated knowledge, awareness, and precautionary steps to minimize exposure to these health risks.

Personal & Social Space

Individuals with special needs often have difficulty with a clear understanding of the personal space requirements between themselves and others. This misunderstanding can lead to discomfort resulting in intense conflict and increased anxiety. As children, we learned how to take turns and to understand the distance we should stand away from people depending upon our familiarity with them. We also learned how to appropriately react when others entered our own personal space. Many children and adults with special needs are not aware of this social dance and do not have the inner voice to help filter their judgments. They frequently come too close to others causing an invasion of privacy and discomfort and leading to a feeling of disrespect or an explosive event. Spaces should be designed in such a way to reduce the potential for path-crossing or invasion of personal space.

Spatial strategies can be implemented throughout the entire design of a new program to support social success, reduce possibilities of conflict and overall create opportunities for healthier and happier relationships within this population.

Sensory & Tactile Issues

Children and adults with special needs often process sensory information differently from the neurotypical population. Commonly observed responses include hyper-and hypo-responses to sensory stimuli; obsessions with an object’s sensory stimuli; obsessions with an object’s sensory features; alterations in perception; and paradoxical responses to sensory stimuli. All of these sensory issues should be taken into consideration when addressing the environmental aspects of home, work and school environments. The designer should be sensitive to lighting quality, white and background noise, air movement and temperatures odors and off-gassing, wall textures and material applications and more.

Durability of Materials

Emotional disturbance (ED) issues, such as intermittent explosive disorder or bipolar, frequently cohabitate with other disabilities. The need, therefore, exists to use durable materials in school, residential and vocational settings supporting the special needs population.

The following materials can be selected for increases in durability – color-through floor linoleum time and epoxy concrete floors; wall protection panels, linoleum wall panels, spray-on durable paints, and corner guards; and impact resistant drywall, plywood sheathing under drywall, and concrete block. Modern materials can include creative colors, patterns and textures and can be combined to create warm, colorful, and inviting environments versus institutional-feeling conditions of surviving older buildings.

Outdoor Spaces

Creative outdoor areas can provide students and adults with special needs the opportunity to explore social contact, as well as provide places for tranquility. Also, security is important to assist in defining boundaries and providing safe environments.

Playground areas can be designed to stimulate and provide physical opportunities for children with gross motor skill challenges; wider openings between play structures can allow for easy access and support personal space needs; equipment can be designed to be sensory rich; hardscaped areas can be covered with rubberized materials for safety; ramps can connect to structures to permit full accessibility, and climbing equipment can be made lower to permit the physically-challenged opportunities to participate in play activity; outdoor activities such as landscaping can provide physical challenges and assist in developing vocational skills; landscaped paths can define edges; and secluded yet visibly-connected areas can provide safe distances from students whose voices and activities could over-stimulate.


Many children with intellectual and developmental disabilities also struggle with attention issues. The following design solutions specifically help to reduce distractibility. In placing classrooms across a corridor from each other, the entry doors should not directly align, thus eliminating a visual connection between the rooms. This also helps reduce noise transfer. Consideration should also be given to the placement of windows within each classroom. If windows are held higher, such that when students are sitting down they cannot see motion outside, this will help reduce student disturbance, yet still allow for natural lighting. Also, the amount of glass within the entry door to each classroom should be minimized to reduce the opportunity for students to see movement in the adjacent corridors.

The heating and cooling system should be designed so that the temperature in each teaching space can be separately controlled to allow each caregiver or teacher to create the most comfortable environment for his or her resident/student population. Appropriate lighting should be selected to eliminate glare and flickering. Finally, each classroom should be ideally sound-isolated from the adjacent spaces.

Cathy Purple Cherry

A Special Needs Architect and Founder of Purposeful Architecture, Cathy Purple Cherry is the mother of an adult son on the Autism spectrum and sibling of a Down Syndrome brother. She is passionate about designing successful environments for individuals with special needs including Autism and is leading this charge across the country. She brings to all Purposeful Architecture projects a unique sensitivity to the world of special needs and fully understands the methods, programs and environments that most successfully support this incredible group of individuals.