While bright colors and designs can be energy giving for some, what can you do if you find those things draining or overwhelming, yet you still want to incorporate prints into your decor? Anna Zabriskie, an interior design based in Richmond, Virginia who wrote Design for Children with Sensory Integration Disorders: A Handbook for Residential Designers shares where to start if you’re looking to create a low-stimulation environment for either you or someone else.

Image of a bed with a blue-and-white ocean waves duvet cover and blue and white pillows at the top of the bed. White bedside tables and lamps are on either side of the bed
Calm hues, along with carpet and curtains, can create a quiet serene space.
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Anna: When thinking about designing low-stimulation environments, it might be tempting to assume that it would only be important for someone on the Autism Disorder Spectrum.  However, as an interior designer, I have come to learn that we are all connected to our environment physically, psychologically, and even emotionally.

Low-stimulation environments are essential for those who can feel overwhelmed or drained by their space. Below are some tips that I have learned along the way to help my clients feel more comfortable and relaxed in their homes. 

1. Avoid cold, blue light and opt for warmer tones. 

Proper lighting is an essential component in creating a soothing environment. I generally start looking at a space in reference to light. With the advent of LED lights, more homeowners are pulling away from incandescent lighting and opting for money-saving LEDs. Lighting has such an impact on our physiology and psychology. Understanding color temperature or Kelvins is key. LEDs can now go from warm, neutral and cool light, which really allows one to change the feel of the space.   

2200-2700K: This color temperature, which is great for bedrooms, produces a warm light similar to an incandescent bulb. It feels peaceful and cozy and should be placed in spaces that don’t require a lot of detail-oriented tasks.  

3000-3500K: Produces a soft white light that is considered less yellow and is usually tolerated very well by those with light sensitivities.  

4000-4500K: Produces a light that looks yellow compared to natural daylight but is substantially more neutral than lower Kelvin lights. This range also avoids the appearance of blue tones that are not tolerated well by those with light sensitivity.  

5000K and up: Produces a bright bluish hue of light and is considered too harsh and cold for many. I do not recommend this light to any of my clients who are sensitive to light. 

2. Choose muted pastels and neutral designs vs. ones that are bright and vivid. 

As a designer, I consider the walls, ceilings and floors a canvas of sorts with the furnishings being the details. These elements are responsible for setting an overall tone of the space. Although color preference is highly personal, bright paint, regardless of color, in general is not received well by those with sensitivities. For my clients who have Sensory Integration Disorders, we prefer using muted pastel hues and neutral tones.  

While I am not opposed to the current trend of using white walls in theory, it is important to choose whites that are more neutral. A stark white will make the space feel cold and clinical and can create eyestrain and make sleeping more difficult. If you’re leaning toward white walls look for paints with some warm or neutral undertones.  

3. Take a sound inventory of your space

Sound dampening is important for those who are sensitive to noise. The clicking of a fluorescent light, the dripping of a faucet or the hum of an AC unit can be overwhelming and just plain irritating. It is best to go through the home room by room to troubleshoot the various noise disturbances. Keep in mind that an open concept home can also cause major sound disturbances. Textiles such as art canvases, draperies, upholstered furniture and rugs all help to diminish overall sounds.  

4. Having multiple choices for seating helps everyone feel at home. 

Think of all the ways the space will be used in both day to day living and also when entertaining. Have places where one or two can gather in quiet conversation while others can be in a more central location.  I like to have various types of seating to allow everyone to feel comfortable. Some prefer to sit alone and untouched, while others like to curl up next to someone. Some like to rock or swivel while others prefer to sit stationary. I put out poofs for those who like to move from group to group.  

5. Choose natural materials. 

Incorporating organic materials into a space helps reduce stress and has a positive psychological impact. Biophilia is defined as the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. Biophilic design understands that we are more comfortable in space that allows for natural elements such as wood, plants, organic textiles and natural light. I have found that those who are sensitive to touch are more comfortable touching materials with a certain level of warmth. For instance, a wood chair vs. a metal chair will feel more soothing and less cold both physically and psychologically.  

6. Create surroundings meant for touching. 

Utilizing fabrics is an important part of any design. Selecting the right fabrics is important for those who are sensitive to touch. I grew up hating the feel of terry cloth and paper. They would literally make me shudder. Understanding how important touch is, I order fabric samples for everything. Of course, it is helpful to see textiles in person to make sure that the colors read well, but it equally important to be able to touch them. Many a time a once-loved fabric for a sofa is rejected because ultimately the client did not like the feel of it. 

Pro Tip: Always get a fabric sample before ordering to make sure that “the feel” works for you. 

7. Decluttering is your friend.

Don’t be afraid of blank space! Sometimes our environments are overwhelming by the sheer number of pictures on the walls or extra furniture. I have been in homes where all shelves are stuffed from end to end, and every table had a collection of knickknacks on them. It can all be too much. It can be irritating and depressing to not have a space in a room to rest your eyes.  This does not mean that you have to live a utilitarian life, but there is a huge benefit to understanding when less truly is more. When I go through homes with clients and we make small, but meaningful edits, it is incredible how many of them feel like they can breathe in their home for the first time. 

Go through each space and see where things can be less cluttered. Find a space for those loose papers that is out of sight. Reduce the amount of items on open shelves. Shelving is only effective if you can really see and appreciate what is being shown.  Pair down furniture that is unnecessary and is just filling space. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a low-stimulation environment?
According to Anna, low-stimulation environments are important for anyone who can feel overwhelmed or drained by their space.
What colors and designs work best for a low-stimulation environment?
Anna recommends choosing muted pastel hues and toned-down designs when designing a low-stimulation environment.
What fabrics does Spoonflower offer that are soft to the touch?
Spoonflower has lots of soothing fabrics to touch, but our Minky, Polartec® Fleece, Celosia VelvetTM and Performance Velvet are all extra soft.

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