Design process for special populations: Color and pattern considerations for children with autism spectrum disorder

Submitted by: Nicole Peterson; Presented by: Fred Malven

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has become increasingly common among children across our nation. As our society begins to comprehend the importance of supporting these children, there has been a push for increasing awareness of ASD and treatment for these children (Myler, Fantacone & Merritt, 2003).  One such community program strives to improve the quality of services to children with autism by providing programs, education, and training for children in their home, community and clinic.  The program presently serves 33 children and their families, a dramatic increase from its inception just one year ago.

The Autism Center is housed in an existing building that was built as a residence for persons with disabilities over 30 years ago.  Basic provisions, such as adjustments in furniture and added training equipment, had been installed prior to renovations.  However, the interior of the building remained largely untouched.  The coordinator of the project envisioned a lively space to accommodate children with autism from the ages of 2-18.  Due to limited funding, budget constraints and usability of the existing layout, the plan remained intact with a focus on interior finishes and furniture selection. Because color and pattern have a major impact on how children with ASD adapt to a space, these factors were identified as having a major impact on the success of the final design.

Studies were more widely available on the architecture and spatial layout of spaces built to support an atmosphere of learning for children affected by ASD rather than on interior color and pattern (McAllister & Maguire, 2012).  In the interior environment, warm muted pink tones have been shown to be a favorable color for people with learning disabilities (Paron-Wildes, 2005).  However, research shows that boys are nearly three times more likely to be affected by the disorder (Williams & Vouchilas, 2013).  To best serve the children that currently attend the center, a survey was developed to help inform color and pattern selections for the design of the interior spaces.  Research questions included:

  • Do parents of children with ASD believe that their children respond best to a warm, cool, or neutral color palette in an interior setting?
  • Are there regional differences that can be identified in color and pattern preferences among children with ASD?

This outreach project used an online survey for parents of children with ASD to assess color and pattern selection for the Autism Center.  The survey was developed to address regional differences in color and pattern preference among children with ASD as well as individual differences within those served by the Autism Center.  The parents were asked to set aside their preferences when answering the questions and respond with answers that best fit their child’s views.  

All survey respondents selected a cool color scheme containing shades of blue and green, over a warm or neutral color scheme.   Bright red palettes, as well as pinks and purples were among the colors parents noticed their children did not respond well to in an interior space.  Regarding pattern selections for carpet and fabrics, parents indicated to avoid small, busy patterns and dark colors. The color preferences selected vary from prior research indicating that there are individual differences that must be considered in the design for this special population.

As autism research becomes more prevalent, a focus on regional dissimilarities among individuals affected by ASD must be more widely considered during the design process.  The study indicates that color preferences for the sample differed greatly from previous research studies.  Autism affects each child differently.  An individual suffering from sensory issues may have an adverse reaction to ordinary sensory stimuli such as color or pattern, which may not be known to the designer without a customized survey or focus group during the design process.


  • McAllister, K., and Maguire, B. (2012). Design Considerations for the autism spectrum disorder-friendly Key Stage 1 classroom.  Support for Learning, volume 27, issue 3, 103-112.
  • Myler P. A., Fantacone, T. A., and Merritt E. T. (2003). Eliminating distractions: The educational needs of autistic children challenge ordinary approaches to school design. American School & University, November issue, 314-317.
  • Paron-Wildes A. J. (2005). Sensory stimulation and autistic children. Implications by InformeDesign, volume 06, issue 04. Retrieved from
  • Williams, M. and Vouchilas, G. (2013). Residential design for families with children on the autism spectrum. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences, volume 105, number 3, 33-41.
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