Art Institute student Candis Thompson joined Room Fu at the beginning of 2012 and is currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in interior design. But Candis is no ordinary student of design. In addition to a full course load at AI, she puts in 32 hours every weekend at a residential rehab facility, working with children who have autism, Down syndrome, brain damage, behavioral problems and other psychological and neurological issues. And she loves it. Why? “I love being around the kids,” Candis explains, “and watching them make progress with their treatment and just getting the satisfaction of knowing that I helped make a difference in their lives.”

Candis’ dream is to combine her design education with her work experience and devote her career to designing spaces for families who have kiddos on the autism spectrum. While she is interning with Room Fu, clients will be able to tap into Candis’ expertise on such projects and benefit from her free design services, paying only for the hours spent by Robin or Claire to supervise the project.

We’re very excited to provide this specialized service to the Austin autism community! To celebrate, here’s a Q&A with Candis, to give you more insight into her experience and interests:

How long have you worked at the rehab center?

I have worked there for 6 years and counting.

What’s your current position there?

I am a full-time rehab tech. I work with children who have autism, are MHMR (mental health and mental retardation), have Down syndrome, brain damage, behavior problems and other psychological and neurological issues.

It sounds like a challenging position. What do you love about it?

It is very challenging and you need a lot of patience. I love being around the kids and watching them make progress with their treatment and just getting the satisfaction of knowing that I helped make a difference in their lives.

What are some of the things to consider when designing a space for a child with autism?

You have to consider where the child is on the spectrum of autism in order to understand the specific needs for that child. For example, if the child tantrums a lot and is self abusive and bangs their head on walls or floors, you would want to design a space that is padded well so that the child won’t seriously hurt themselves. Some children can be very destructive and throw objects and knock over things, so you need sturdy furniture that is easy to clean and able to take the wear and tear. Because a lot of the children have sensory problems, the textures that you choose to use can also be an important factor.

Are there specific colors that are recommended or colors that should be avoided?

Colors should not be too stimulating. You want to stay away from bright reds or yellows. The primary color scheme found in most child-friendly environments should be avoided. Go for more soft, calm, and relaxing colors that can be mixed with neutral earth tones. You don’t want to over stimulate them with color.

Is contrast an issue?

Contrast is not a big issue. They see everything and everyone as an object.

Are there types of window treatments that should be avoided?

You definitely want to avoid window treatments that can be pulled down. Natural light is important. A clear view of the outdoors can be too stimulating, so opaque plexiglass windows or anything that can let in light but obstruct the view a little bit will work great.

If change is an issue for kids with autism, should you make changes to the décor gradually, or is it better to just rip off the band-aid?

It’s better to just rip off the band-aid and get it all done at once. They need consistency so if something is changing gradually then it won’t be consistent. Introducing them into a new environment that will be the same everyday is always a better choice.

In what ways do you recommend incorporating sensory experiences into the design of a room?

From my experience, the children love to touch and feel textures. Whether it’s with their hands or mouths, I would recommend using a textured wallpaper that is toxin-free and easy to clean so they could rub their hands across it or even lick it if they want to. Incorporate pillows of different textures and sizes that the kids can lay on and play with. Weighted blankets should be in this space to give them deep pressure when needed. Even incorporating a cuddle swing where they can escape and be alone and have their blankets with them would be a great way to have those sensory experiences.

Is there anything special that should be done about electronics in the room?

Electronics should not be left out in the room, due to safety issues–especially if the children using the space are destructive. These kids can be very unpredictable and the smallest thing can set them off. Music can sometimes be very effective at soothing them, so if you want to incorporate music in the space, it’s better to install speakers in the ceiling or walls and store the actual electronic components in another room so they won’t be knocked over or thrown. As far as television goes, some kids on the autism spectrum can’t sit long enough to even watch TV, but if they do, it’s important to mount the TV out of reach. This goes for computers too because a lot of these kids love the computer, but a tantrum can lead to broken electronics and hurt the children. Safety is the number one factor, always.

What type of lighting do you recommend in a room designed for an autistic child?

If the child is sensitive to light, I would recommend a dimmer in the room so you can adjust the light. No fluorescent or super bright lights. No lamps or hanging light fixtures.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Autism has such a broad spectrum and should not be looked at as a disability, but as a way of life. There are plenty of adults and children out there who need an environment that works for them–not against them. If we can have a space that we live in and make it function for us then they should have a space for them as well. They are not very social and will spend a lot of time in their environment. The environment they live in and the lives of these children are just as important as any one else’s.

If you are struggling to adapt your home to suit a kiddo on the autism spectrum, Candis would love to help make this an easier process for you! She is currently available for consultations on Wednesdays, accompanied by another Room Fu designer. If Candis does work outside of your initial consultation, those services are free of charge. Clients will only pay for the initial consultation and for minimal time spent by the supervising designer to approve Candis’ designs before they are presented to the client. Our hope is to ease the minds of concerned parents, and provide amazing spaces for all children.