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Special Needs Space Planning Tips

July 20, 2011

A reader of this blog sent me an email with the following question:

Our church is beginning to accommodate children with special needs and specifically on the autism spectrum.  As we think about making our space more welcoming to students with differences, is there a paint color you could recommend for our walls?

We posted the above question on The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page and got some great feedback, with fantastic ideas.  Click here and scroll to the July 15th Facebook post to read the exact comments some of the blog’s readers offered (they are really helpful!)  Below I’ve posted insight from three my favorite go-to sources for special needs ministry:


Linda Martin, MME, MT-BC  is a board-certified music therapist specializing in school age children with autism.  In addition to leading the Miracle 139 Special Needs Ministry at The Rock Church (San Diego, CA), Linda is also the Autism Program Coordinator at Rady Children’s Hospital.

In general, cool tones or bright colors are considered more arousing so most people don’t paint bedrooms bright reds, oranges, etc.  If the goal is for a calming room, I would in general recommend warmer colors. 

 However, my suggestion would be to focus more on what’s in the room.  Warm lighting instead of fluorescent lighting is much better (not only because of the harshness of fluorescent lighting, but also because they often have a faint sound to them that can disturb some children with ASD). Keeping the items on the wall to a minimum, incorporating different textures within wall art or furniture and having soft, calming music available are all strategies that lend themselves to having a sensory-rich yet not over-stimulating environment.  In our church environment, we also use items like large exercise balls, a small trampoline, soft floor mats and bean bags to provide additional ways that children can be best equipped to handle their sensory and self-regulation needs.” – Linda Martin


Stacie Trottier, M.A. CCC-SLP  is a licensed speech language pathologist who has worked as a therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as well as other providers in California.  Stacie has consulted with her home church for better special needs inclusion and offers some tips below:

I recommend paint colors from the beige or brown family.  These warm tones are calming and best in a low sheen.

Ideally a church would consider many of these space related issues when designing an environment to accommodate participants with special needs:

  • Phones inside rooms to page assistance or emergency help.
  • Communication board to benefit parents/families at suite entrance.
  • Counter space with sink for set up and clean up inside classroom(s).
  • Direct access to restroom facilities.
  • Locking cabinets inside classrooms to store unneeded materials.
  • Full spectrum lighting or diffusers to cover fluorescent lights.  Tall upward shining lamps (indirect lighting) may also be ideal so long as they meet fire code.
  • Frosted windows or blinds to shield from outside distraction (may need to keep some clear windows for child protection purposes).
  • Horseshoe tables with appropriate sized chairs.
  • D ring clamps or other ceiling mounts to use with items such as sensory swings.” – Stacie Trottier

Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel (Colorado Springs, CO).  Woodmen Valley Chapel currently serves 70 individuals affected by special needs, many with autism spectrum disorder.  Katie has helped Woodmen Valley Chapel establish special needs inclusion programming and parent support events for this multi site church.   Prior to joining the Woodmen Valley team four years ago, Katie was a special education teacher in the public schools system.

I would agree that there seems to be more research about calming colors that may benefit all children.  For our church we have a rust and red room, a baby blue room and tan room.  All of these settings have worked fine for the children participating who have ASD.   

I too would echo the importance of considering other space issues when planning an environment that will include children with special needs.  Defining space for each activity with a picture schedule or picture book is great for this population.  A music station is also very helpful where there is a defined area with instruments that are more quiet and CD player that plays soft music.  

And sometimes it’s the tools on hand that help a child even more than the space design.  I order theraputty from the Abilitations catalog.  This is great for kids to manipulate and keeps them calm.  Anything with textures is great, we have a table at one of our church campuses that has disks with several different textures, and we bring the kids over to the table when we are seeing some behavior indicators.  Time at this sensory “station” or table is a great tool for keeping a student calm.”  – Katie Garvert


For more ideas to enhance a special needs environment, see the following posts:

Products for the Special Needs Environment

Multi Sensory Environments

9-part series showing pictures of Stonebriar Community Church’s Special Needs Suite

To see an example of a sensory board for a wall and similar to the sensory table mentioned by Katie Garvert above, see this picture.

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