Better Waiting Areas for Those in the Autism Spectrum

A visit to dentist or doctor can heighten anxiety among children on the autism spectrum. Better space design can be the solution

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Durability and appeal likely comprise the top two factors when designing a public waiting area. A television, bright overhead lights, patterned upholstery, air freshener and people chatting may appeal to most people.

To some children on the autism spectrum, however, the same waiting room may pose a problem. It would seem too bright, too loud and too chaotic.

The over-stimulating room can heighten any anxiety children may already feel because of the doctor’s visit. Providing a low-sensory space or making a few modifications can help more patients feel at ease.

If you’re a health care provider wanting to accommodate patients with autism, dedicate a separate room to provide a low-stimuli space. If that’s not possible, part of the waiting area separated by a half wall, a moveable cubicle wall or child’s play tent place may help carve out some space.

“The parents are very appreciative,” said Tracy Panzarella, director of clinical services at Autism Services, Inc. in Amherst.

Placement is important. Panzarella said that it’s best to create the space away from the noise and bustle of the main waiting area, such as on the opposite side of where patients check-in and away from the television.

She also advises using soft lighting, not harsh, overhead fluorescent lighting. If possible, lighting with a dimmer switch is helpful.

Panzarella also recommends darker and more neutral colors throughout the space: floors, walls, ceilings and furnishings. Minimize patterns in all aspects of the decor. Wood furnishing is sensory-friendly, but select dark painted furniture that doesn’t let the wood grain show through.

Don’t paint sprawling murals or hang numerous pictures. Just one piece of art per wall suffices. Choose a soothing nature scene, for example, or abstract art with curves and spirals instead of jagged shapes.

Include carpeting, soft seating and curtains to help absorb sound. Consider sound-absorbing architectural features like ceiling tiles. Keep the television in the main area turned down.

Skip artificial air fresheners and harsh-smelling chemicals. Opt for natural cleaners and live plants.

Provide a few simple toys and books but store them in a covered, opaque bin to reduce visual clutter.

“Activity panels, where there are different textures of fabric, toys that make different sounds and things like small manipulatives and puzzles are nice, along with different books to look at,” Panzarella said.

Natalie LeVan, supervisor of occupational therapy at The Center for Learning at Aspire of Western New York, suggested beanbag chairs or other seating that’s more inviting to cuddling.

“Compression vests or blankets can have a calming effect,” she said. “A beanbag chair mimics that.”

Overall, making the waiting room quieter-both visually and audibly-can help some patients on the spectrum remain calmer if they ordinarily feel overwhelmed by that kind of stimuli.

“Many of these kids tend to be distractible if there’s too much to see or hear,” LeVan said. “Some hear the lights buzzing, the heater blowing and people walking outside the window. Simplify the environment. Having the TV remote available is helpful.”

Most of these changes provide a more tranquil waiting area for any patient, but can make the space more welcoming to a patient on the autism spectrum.