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Decorating to comfort kids

The comforts of home can have special meaning -- and increased importance -- for a child with special needs. For kids with autism, ADD or sensory and developmental issues, the colors, textures and shapes that surround them can make a difference in how they feel.

"Our fast-paced world is a constant struggle for these children,'' said Aventura decorator Deborah DiMare, who specializes in creating sense-awakening spaces. "They have difficulty expressing their discomfort, which leads to tremendous frustration. In order to thrive and grow to their full potential, children with autism need to feel in control in an environment that is comforting and nonthreatening.''

DiMare works with a licensed occupational therapist to design environments that meet a child's specific needs.

"One client told me her child had a problem sleeping. I immediately noticed the striped wallpaper in the child's bedroom,'' DiMare said. "Stripes can be too overstimulating to a child. Another mother was concerned that her autistic child would not eat properly in the dining room. She did not realize the chair was not ergonomicly correct for him.''

Some children are overly sensitive to noise or have problems with coordination and motor skills.

"When a child clearly understands how to meet their own needs in a structured and comforting environment they are ready to learn, communicate, engage with others, and feel happy,'' said educational consultant Lori Wise, who works with the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.

A child whose nervous system is over-aroused can benefit from an environment that calms him and promotes focus and attention so that he can learn without being distracted, said Nancy Amar, an occupational therapist who works with Dimare. A child whose nervous system is underaroused can benefit from an environment that stimulates.

Jodie Rozencwaig of Bay Harbor Islands hired DiMare to redo the bedroom of her 5-year-old son.

"She met my son, who was having trouble sleeping and calming down at night. Deborah picked a cream paint color and created a crash pit of bean bags and pillows and heavy blankets which would provide weight on his body so he could mush in there and get sensory input,'' Rozencwaig said.

"Now he is more comfortable,'' she said. "He settles down easier at night and plays more.''


DiMare offers these tips for creating a comfortable space to meet a child's sensory needs: 
  • Keep the space as clean and as clutter-free as possible.
  • Include multisensory toys such as microphones, Koosh balls and Slinkys.
  • Include items that address gross and fine motor skill functions: objects for pushing, pulling, rolling and hugging.
  • Incorporate visually stimulating items such as clocks, wind chimes and crystals.
  • Use soft, diffused lighting. Choose ceiling fixtures that are covered with frosted glass, table lamps that don't give off harsh light and lamps draped with scarves.
  • Hang wall art that portrays happy images, such as photos of baby animals.
  • Choose resilient, sturdy, washable flooring. Carpet or anchored area rugs should be allergy-free, easy to clean and plush to the touch.
  • Some children appear to react painfully to light touch or tickling. Use blankets that are heavy and enveloping.
  • Furnishings should be low to the ground. In place of a traditional desk and chair, consider a small coffee table with big pillows to sit on or a lap buddy.
  • For the child to learn while playing, store small toys in clear bins with labels and graphics to match.
  • Consider bean bags, floor cushions, small tents for cocooning, rocking chairs, tunnels and swings.
  • Use organic aromatherapy to calm (like lavender) or stimulate (like mint).
  • Calming colors: pink and soft blue.