According to me, there is no space more important than the one designed for a special needs kid. Not every kid is going to be able to maintain or appreciate that dream room that we see in catalogs or on pinterest. Instead of forcing our kids to like what we like, we need to understand their needs first. For special needs kids the mantra "Form Follows Function" could never be more true.
1. Create a Retreat from the World
No matter the disability, some things in this world can be completely overwhelming for a kid. Most kids with autism have a coordinating disability called sensory processing disorder. The way it manifests differs between each kids. Some may hate a certain texture. Some may need low lighting. Some may seek out tight corners. And some may crave deep pressure. You can create a retreat for your kid by understanding his or her sensory needs and providing it in the space.
From an early age my son sought out his own retreats. I thought he was being silly. I just didn't understand he was craving deep pressure and a nook to call his own.
My son has grown quite a bit since he was first diagnosed but he still avoids crowded spaces and chaos. He has learned to manage it while he is in that environment. But when he comes home from school or karate he quickly retreats to his room to (in our words) "decompress." He needs a place to pace back and forth and retell the days trials in his own language. He needs pillows and blankets to roll in and get that pressure that helps him calm down. We just give him that alone time until he can deal with people again. For his room we have provided the "pretty" blankets for the bed but also many more pillows and blankets he can pull around to build his nests. And though it is a room for two boys, the space planning allows wide paths for him to stretch his legs.
A retreat does not always have to be a whole bedroom. It could be play room or a closet or the bed. Take their needs and fit it into any space you have available that they can call their own. Add pillows, lighting, and special toys just for them. Keep soft and cozy. I don't know of any kid who wouldn't love a secret space to call their own.
2. Safety First
I worry constantly for my son's safety. His biggest threat is himself. From a young age he was klutzy and when upset would run into walls or hit himself in the head. (I have often dreamt of a padded room for him to just let loose but obviously people might look down on me doing that). When we first were dealing with the autism we were transitioning him to his own bed. We quickly learned of how dangerous he could get. When he was angry he would throw anything he could find, including his body, against the walls, furniture, and the door. My grandiose ideas of this chess themed room complete with a checker board wall and 3 foot high chess pieces were abandoned. We had to take everything out of his room except the mattress and blankets. Luckily, he manages his anger better now. But I still keep his safety in mind as I choose materials and furniture for his room. Here are a couple things to think of before you purchase anything.
-Does your kid bite or lick things? Probably a good thing to avoid antique furniture with lead pain or less durable finishes. Don't buy really expensive items if you don't want to find teeth marks in them.
- Is your kid a dare devil (jumping and running without looking)? Look for rounded corners and soft furniture. Bean bags and poufs are great chairs for kids. Make sure things are structurally sound. Be careful of the furniture that they stand on. Will it break under their weight?
-Does your kid love to climb? I see more and more rooms with ladders to lofts and climbing walls. Those are super cool but is your kid old enough or able to do that on their own? Also be careful or bookshelves and dressers. You might want to choose stronger furniture and actually attach it to the wall.
-Is your kid ready for any furniture? It is ok to have them sleep with just a mattress for a while. Keep it Japanese style and have everything low to the ground. You don't have to feel guilty that they don't have a fully designed space with all the accent furniture. The main purpose of the bedroom is to sleep and be a comfortable retreat. Sometimes all that is needed is a mattress and blankets. Then you can slowly add the accent furniture. Take a look at Montessori inspired bedrooms.
3. KISS - Keep it Simple S****** (That S word is a bad word in my house.)
The design aesthetic for a kid's room can explore all sorts of cartoon characters and themes. And as parents research the endless possibilities they often make the mistake of taking it too far. Not every wall needs to be covered in murals or bright colors. The more details and patterns in the space the more chaotic it can appear to a special needs kid. I would suggest keeping a focal point wall and 1 or 2 theme elements in the room like an art piece or comforter. Then incorporate geometric patterns, solid color mostly ranging in calming tones, and simple shapes for the accessories and furniture. Often autistic kids are organized and mathematically minded. The more organized it feels the more likely it will not be overwhelming and easier to teach them to keep clean (which is huge bonus).
I also prefer to design a kid's room so that they can grow with the space. It's easy to change out bedding and accessories. But if you can keep the general design not age specific you can have more longevity with the space. Keep it simple. Keep comfortable. Keep it flexible.
4. Incorporate them in the Process
I learned early on that my vision of the space is not exactly what my kid would want. Was my 2 year old really ready for a chess themed room? When I went to design his new room that he would share with his brother I wanted a space that showed a bit of their personalities. They got to help me shop and even make artwork. My son loves Angry Birds. They now hold a prominent position in the window seat which he rearranges daily. I also had them help me make artwork for the room. The more you can involve them in the creation of the room them more likely they will associate as their own.
5. Visual Cues
Children with special needs often have language barriers. No matter the age, pictures tend to improve understanding. If you want them to help clean up, label their toy bins with pictures rather than words. If you want them to get dressed by themselves, put pictures on their dresser in descending order so they know which item is in which drawer and what to put on first. Make it part of the design rather than an afterthought with a simple consistent color scheme.
6. Be Flexible as their Needs and Desires Change
Don't be surprised after you spend all that time designing their space that they turn around and ask you to do something different to the room. I am currently facing this challenge. My son now thinks he needs a bunk bed. How am I going to incorporate a bunk bed in his beautifully symmetrical room? Well, I don't know yet. But I am pretty sure it's not going to happen anytime soon. He luckily is old enough to reason with. I told him if he can sleep in his bedroom for one whole year I would buy him that bunkbed. I am totally willing redesign his room if it will solve the nighttime migration problem. Win for Mom!
I am all about challenging your children to earn a big room redesign. But most of the time there are little things that we can do to enhance the room without it being too egregious. Here are some ideas that you can consider to customize it to your ever evolving child.
-Suddenly afraid of the dark? Add night lights. You can be creative with battery powered stringed lights or glow in the dark images. Or even a super cool lamp like below.
-Can't fall asleep? Maybe they need white noise. Add a fan or iPod playing soft music.
-New obsession? It's ok if they moved from cars to angry birds. If you kept the design simple (see #3) you can easily switch out a couple items and make it feel like a new space.
-Are they constantly building forts and moving furniture around? Let them! They are just being creative. And you may find that there is a new arrangement that fits their needs better.
This is one cool light. I know my kids would love this as a nightlight and hold close under the covers or to use the bathroom. I love technology!