Designing Inclusive Spaces for Kids With Disabilities Goes Back to the 5 Senses
What feels comforting is different for everyone.
Published Aug 19, 2022 2:48 PM
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Interior design may seem superfluous for families with extraordinary needs, but Dallas-based designer Shelly Rosenberg argues the opposite. “Interior designers and architects actually have a bigger impact on your health and wellness than medical practitioners, because we spend so much of our time inside our homes,” she reasons.
As a mom of three children with different learning styles and challenges, Rosenberg has spent more than 20 years making her house safe, comfortable, and optimized for their well-being. In 2019 she founded Acorn & Oak, which offers services to help parents design inclusive spaces for children with disabilities, as well as organic weighted blankets and mattress pads to help with sensory regulation. “I just feel like this is truly my life’s work,” she says.
For Rosenberg, designing adaptive and inclusive spaces is essential, not only for the person with the diagnosis but for all members of the family. “As your child grows and you’re out in public, you can start to see where the world isn’t built as inclusively as we would like,” she explains. “You’re seeing a lot of physical barriers, but also emotional and mental barriers out in the real world.” After a long day of maneuvering around public spaces that aren’t very equitable, going back to an accessible, toxin-free home provides ease and peace for everyone.
So how should you address the not-so-obvious issues to help make your home more inclusive? Rosenberg says that it goes back to the five senses.
The way a space looks is top of mind when it comes to interiors, but aesthetics are only part of the design equation. “Sight is super-important because that’s where most of us get a majority of our information, and we can’t have sight without light,” Rosenberg asserts. Light subconsciously speaks to our brain and tells it what to do: A bright blue glow alerts the nervous system to wake up; full-spectrum task lighting helps maintain focus; and warm red tones stimulate melatonin for relaxation. Adding a simple dimmer switch can help guide a child’s behavior throughout the day.
Patterns and colors can also trigger different reactions. For an anxious child who is more of a sensory avoider than seeker, wild patterns and bright colors could negatively affect their safe, quiet space. Better to reserve those elements in a playroom where you want to encourage high energy.
Whether your child loves sensory stimulation or withdraws from it, Rosenberg recommends exposing them to different spaces to build their tolerance and flexibility in a world that isn’t always inclusive or accessible. Visitors will benefit from the variety, too. Rosenberg explains, “You might be a big family of stimulus seekers but, occasionally, you’re going to have people come over who aren’t, so it might be nice to have an area where you can say, ‘You know, this feels like it’s a little too much for you. Why don’t we go in this room?’”
When her energy is spent, Rosenberg enjoys a bit of sensory deprivation in a low-light, silent spot. “I want to completely check out at the end of the day,” she says, laughing. Adding noise-dampening objects like rugs, drapery, and felt wall tiles can conjure a cavelike ambience.
On the flip side, “dark and quiet can feel very uncomfortable to some people,” she notes. “They don’t have any way of judging what’s around them or what’s going on, and that brings up a lot of fear.” She recommends filling the void with music: Classical lullabies, even birdsong, can help deregulate bodies after a trip to the trampoline park. White noise is popular for sleep, but Rosenberg suggests subbing in lesser known brown noise, which is deeper and lower on the sound spectrum and has more variation (think: rolling waves or thunder).
The laundry, the dog, the steak cooking on the grill—scents are all around us even if we don’t register them. “I feel like sometimes in our own homes, we get numb to different fragrances,” says Rosenberg. But for someone who is especially sensory sensitive, even a floral candle can become overwhelming. Rosenberg suggests using a purifier to create a neutral environment: Not only will it remove errant odors, it will help eliminate invisible elements like mold, allergens, and toxic VOCs that come from carpeting, paint, plastic toys, and furnishings. Instead of artificial sprays, opt for the purest essential oils you can find, which can either energize (like eucalyptus or citrus scents) or calm (lavender is always popular) depending on your needs.
Another tip? Invite your best friend over to audit your home for problem areas with a fresh nose. “Sometimes I have friends come over and go, ‘What’s this or that?’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? I didn’t even notice that,’” Rosenberg admits.
Babies love to explore their environments through their mouths and readily absorb everything they touch. Organic textiles and low-to-no-VOC furnishings reign supreme for new parents and high-needs households alike. For everyone else, Rosenberg says to think of water.
Purifying the water that comes into our homes—and, ultimately, into our bodies—helps reduce the bacteria, heavy metals, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals that we get exposed to. This can be as simple as using a Brita filter for drinking water or as complex as installing a water-purification system (which Rosenberg says can cost roughly $3,000 and last up to 10 years). It’s also worth noting that we soak in more when our pores are open, which tends to happen in a warm bath, so adding a filter for the showerhead and filling the tub that way is an easy, impactful switch.
What feels comforting to you isn’t universal, especially for someone who is particularly sensitive to textures. “I’ve had plenty of clients say they can’t stand wool or hate velvet,” says Rosenberg. “I have a mohair couch that I love because the fabric wears like iron and it’s luxurious and beautiful. All three of my kids say it’s prickly and they don’t like it.” Which textiles are by and large cozy yet safe? Rosenberg often opts for durable, organic fabrics like cotton and linen.
Weighted blankets are also great because they help release serotonin and melatonin to help kids (and grown-ups) wind down. Most are made with plastic pellets, but Acorn & Oak’s are filled with hypoallergenic glass sand and constructed with GOTS-certified organic cotton. A travel version that’s only five pounds is perfect for plane rides or post-park car rides. (One of Rosenberg’s favorite therapies is deep-pressure stimulation, in which gentle pressure is applied to the body to relax the nervous system.)
There’s no need to gut renovate every room. Rosenberg suggests going slow, and in the meantime, tidying up where you can: “More than ever, to have a little haven where you can really connect—it is the stage that you’re setting for the most intimate memories you’ll have in your life.”
This article originally used the term “kids with special needs.” The more specific, people-first terminology is “kids with disabilities,” per the National Center on Disability and Journalism. We corrected this wording on August 22, 2022.