Interior design may seem superfluous for families with extraordinary needs, but Dallas-based designer Shelly Rosenberg argues otherwise. “Interior designers and architects actually have a greater impact on your health and well-being than doctors because we spend so many of our time inside our homes,” she reasons.
As a mom of three with different learning styles and challenges, Rosenberg has spent over 20 years making her home safe, comfortable and optimized for their well-being. In 2019, she founded Acorn & Oak, which offers services to help parents design inclusive spaces for children with disabilities, as well as organic weighted blankets and mattresses to help with sensory regulation. “I just feel like it’s really been my life’s work,” she says.
For Rosenberg, designing adaptive and inclusive spaces is essential, not only for the person diagnosed but also for everything family members. “As your child grows and you go out in public, you may start to see where the world isn’t built as inclusively as we would like,” she explains. “You see a lot of physical barriers, but also emotional and mental barriers in the real world.” After a long day of maneuvering around unfair public spaces, returning to an accessible, toxin-free home offers ease and peace for all.
So how should you address the not-so-obvious issues to help make your home more inclusive? Rosenberg says it goes back to the five senses.
The appearance of a space is a priority when it comes to interiors, but aesthetics are only part of the design equation. “Sight is extremely important because that’s where most of us get most of our information, and we can’t have sight without light,” Rosenberg says. The light subconsciously speaks to our brain and tells it what to do: a bright blue glow alerts the nervous system to wake up; full-spectrum task lighting helps maintain focus; and warm red tones stimulate melatonin for relaxation. Adding a simple dimmer can help guide a child’s behavior throughout the day.
Patterns and colors can also trigger different reactions. For an anxious child who is more of a sensory avoider than a seeker, wild patterns and bright colors could negatively affect their safe and quiet space. Best to reserve these items in a playroom where you want to encourage high energy.
Whether your child enjoys sensory stimulation or withdraws from it, Rosenberg recommends exposing them to different spaces to develop their tolerance and flexibility in a world that isn’t always inclusive or accessible. Visitors will also benefit from the variety. Rosenberg explains, “You might be a big family of stimulus seekers, but every once in a while you’re going to bring in people who aren’t, so it might be nice to have a place where you can say: “You know, that feels like a bit too much for you. Why don’t we go to this room?
When his energy is spent, Rosenberg enjoys a bit of sensory deprivation in a quiet, dimly lit place. “I completely want to check it out at the end of the day,” she laughs. Adding noise-cancelling items like rugs, draperies, and felt wall tiles can create a cave-like vibe.
On the other hand, “dark and quiet can be very uncomfortable for some people,” she notes. “They have no way of judging what’s around them or what’s going on, and that brings a lot of fear.” She recommends filling the void with music: classic lullabies, even birdsong, can help deregulate bodies after a trip to the trampoline park. White noise is popular for sleep, but Rosenberg suggests substituting a lesser-known brown noise, which is deeper and lower on the sound spectrum and has more variation (think: rolling waves or thunder).
The laundry, the dog, the steak cooking on the grill, the scents are all around us even if we don’t register them. “I feel like sometimes in our own homes we’re numb to different scents,” Rosenberg says. But for someone who is particularly sensitive to the senses, even a floral candle can become overwhelming. Rosenberg suggests using a purifier to create a neutral environment: Not only will it eliminate stray odors, but it will also help eliminate invisible elements such as mold, allergens and toxic VOCs from carpets, paint, plastic toys and furniture. Instead of artificial sprays, opt for the purest essential oils you can find, which can either energize (like eucalyptus or citrus scents) or calm (lavender is always popular) depending on your needs.
Another tip? Invite your best friend to audit your home for problem areas with a fresh nose. “Sometimes I have friends who come and ask me, ‘What is this or that?’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? I didn’t even notice it,’” Rosenberg admits.
Babies love to explore their surroundings through their mouths and easily absorb everything they touch. Organic textiles and low- or no-VOC furniture reign supreme for new parents and high-needs households. For everyone, Rosenberg says to think about water.
Purifying the water that enters our homes and ultimately our bodies helps reduce the bacteria, heavy metals, chemicals and pharmaceuticals we are exposed to. It can be as simple as using a Brita filter for drinking water or as complex as installing a water purification system (which Rosenberg says can cost around $3,000 and last up to in 10 years). It’s also worth noting that we soak up more when our pores are open, which tends to happen in a hot bath, so adding a showerhead filter and filling the tub this way is an easy and impactful change. .
What feels comforting to you is not universal, especially for someone who is particularly sensitive to textures. “Many customers have told me they can’t stand wool or hate velvet,” says Rosenberg. “I have a mohair sofa which I love because the fabric wears like iron and is luxurious and beautiful. My three kids say it’s prickly and they don’t like it. What textiles are on the whole comfortable but safe? Rosenberg often opts for durable and organic fabrics like cotton and linen.
Weighted blankets are also great because they help release serotonin and melatonin to help kids (and adults) relax. Most are made with plastic pellets, but Acorn & Oak are filled with hypoallergenic glass sand and made with GOTS certified organic cotton. A travel version that weighs only five pounds is perfect for airplane rides or car trips after parking. (One of Rosenberg’s favorite therapies is deep pressure stimulation, in which gentle pressure is applied to the body to relax the nervous system.)
It is not necessary to renovate every room. Rosenberg suggests taking it slow and, in the meantime, tidying up where you can: “More than ever, having a little haven of peace where you can really connect is the stage you set for the most memorable memories. intimates that you will have in your life.”
This article originally used the term “children with special needs”. More specific, people-oriented terminology is “children with disabilities,” according to the National Center on Disability and Journalism.. We corrected this wording on August 22, 2022.