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Soothing the Senses

Imagine you’re walking through the midway at an amusement park. You’ve spent a long day navigating crowds, inundated with bright blinking lights, randomly blaring bells and music and a profusion of bright color. By the time you make a hasty retreat, you’ll likely find yourself breathing a sigh of relief as you head for the calmer environs of home.

Most of us take for granted the sensory refuge a comforting environment provides us—at least until we’re exposed to extremes like the scenario above. But what if home weren’t calm? What if your own bedroom produced the same feelings of anxiety and discomfort experienced during that wind through the midway? Imagine if there were no soothing retreat. For children diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), and many on the autism spectrum, this is often reality—and for parents who witness a child’s frustration, it can be disheartening—particularly when they go so far as to avoid their bedrooms even to sleep.

According to Dallas-based interior designer Carolyn Feder, for those coping with such conditions, “Sensory overload comes daily from every angle—through fast moving images on television and computers, bright lights, loud music, heavily scented products and noisy devices.” When child’s senses become overloaded, they may become hyperactive and impulsive, or lash out—particularly when they can’t express their feelings.

“Most of us are able to easily make adjustments to overwhelming surroundings; however for those with sensory processing issues, all changes are drastic and can be painful.”

Through her firm, Sensory Interior Design, Feder works closely with clients and often their therapists (since specific responses to stimuli can vary widely by individual) to create calm and functional spaces for those affected by SPD. In addition to her residential work, Feder also gives presentations to area schools and organizations, helping them transform learning spaces to better accommodate kids with special needs.

For a recent young client, Feder transformed a converted attic bedroom previously clad in bright yellow paint and wallpaper and cluttered with toys and therapeutic equipment into a soothing space. During the redesign, the walls were repainted a pale blue to create cohesion with the glass blocks already present in the room, the closet was expanded to better fit equipment and toys, ballerina bars were added to facilitate the client’s therapy, and the window became the focal point with a simple but significant treatment that made it appear larger. While improvements to the room were certainly aesthetic, the impetus behind each design decision was to provide a space that was a calming buffer against all the external stimuli Feder’s young client faces during the day.
Feder notes that, “There’s often a sense that our environment is out of our control, with many people feeling they have no time to sleep, much less re-organize and transform a room.” But, she assures, these tips can help create a calm oasis for those with Sensory Processing Disorders:

Clutter is the single biggest cause of sensory noise, so tackling it is the most important thing you can do to create a soothing and calm environment for your child. Feder notes that, while this can often be the most overwhelming improvement project to undertake, she says, stay the course, as it also pays immediate dividends.

Tip: Set aside a full day for the project—ideally when you have dedicated childcare and few other distractions. Make boxes for items to be donated and items to be thrown away or recycled and schedule pick-up for larger pieces.

Organize It
The Container Store
DFW area

Omnipresent florescent lighting can distort color and emits residual noise. In some cases, it has also been shown to cause headaches and, although rarely, even seizures. Feder strongly suggests avoiding florescent lighting in homes. She instead prefers halogen and full-spectrum lighting, noting that you should aim for several sources of light in a room to avoid reliance solely on overhead fixtures.

Tip: Pick two or three lamps topped with soft shades and (ideally) fitted with three-way switches so you can control the intensity of the light.

Shed a Soft Light On It
Dallas Lightbulb
Dallas, 972/241-2852

Multiple DFW locations

Home Depot
Multiple DFW locations

Bringing natural elements into a space creates an instant sense of calm and harmony. Feder recommends wood floors topped with soft, neutral rugs. She also likes to incorporate plants and cork bulletin boards (which also serve as sound-proof devices and camouflage holes when hanging art work). In addition, she stresses the importance of good ventilation, suggesting open windows with screens and small fans to circulate air and advises clients to avoid synthetic air fresheners and scents.

Tip: Other ways to bring nature into a room include opting for un-painted wood furniture over colder metal or iron pieces.

Get Wooden Wares
Amish Furniture Showcase
Frisco, 214/387-0204
Farmers Branch, 972/239-8118

Woodbine Furniture
Fort Worth, Keller locations

Polka dots and floral prints aren’t the only culprits of pattern overload. For example, even the horizontal slats in mini blinds could be viewed as “noise” and can be replaced with (far less pattern intense) neutral panel curtains.

Tip: Create focus around the room’s window with simple panel curtains hung close to the ceiling to create a sense of height and importance.

Drape It
Pottery Barn
Dallas, Fort Worth, Frisco locations

Dallas, Southlake locations

A common element in harmonious spaces is a single focal point on which to rest your eye or, as Feder dubs it, “the fireplace concept.” In a room completely free of clutter, choose a window, a toy box or a pillow as a single focal point, making them the centerpiece for color and pattern.

Tip: Include a few throw pillows featuring your child’s favorite thing (e.g. ballerinas or trains) on an otherwise neutral bed.

Toss a Pillow on It
Multiple DFW locations

Bed Bath & Beyond
Multiple DFW locations

Color is an instant indicator of how we “should” be feeling. Red, yellow and orange are intense colors that have been shown to stimulate and raise excitement levels (which is why you’ll often see them utilized in fast food restaurants), while blues, greens and violets are more tranquil hues.

Tip: Focusing on calmer colors in a room’s décor is a simple way to instantly change the tenor of a space and help improve sensory response.

Get No-Scent Paints
The Freshaire Choice
Available at Home Depot

Natura by Benjamin Moore
Multiple DFW locations

Soft, “friendly” textures also imbue an instant sense of calm in a room. Feder recommends natural and, if possible, organic fabrics, such as 100 percent cotton sheets, down comforters with duvet covers, fluffy pillows, beanbag chairs and even textured solid colored wallpaper to appeal to a child’s love of touch.

Tip: Steer clear of rough textures and polyester bedspreads.

Cotton Picking
Everything Else In Between
Dallas, 214/346-0477
(Also carries Toys, games, sensory items)

Green Earth Market
Dallas, 800/781-8837

Green Living
Dallas, 214/821-8444
(Also carries paint, toys, home décor, more)

The Greener Good
Fort Worth, 817/732-1500
(Also carries toys, lighting and more)

Feder strongly suggests avoiding toys and gadgets that make noise, employ bells or whistles or flash lights. Simple, straightforward playthings that deliver one piece of information at a time are a better choice.

Tip: Try to keep computers, televisions and radios out of the bedroom.

Uncomplicated Toys
Brilliant Sky Toys & Books
Highland Village, 972/966-2321

Little Bean
Dallas, 214/370-9111

Toy Works
Fort Worth, 817/737-8697