Talking with U of M

Talking autism-friendly colors with U of M

 Image of colorful crayons next to a headshot of Cecilia Xi Wang, an assistant professor in the College of Design.
Credit: Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (04/08/2024) — Selecting paint colors for your living room, office or classroom can be a big decision — one that impacts not only the feel of the room but the emotions of those within it. Research suggests color may play an even more important role for children with autism.

For National Autism Awareness Month this April, Cecilia Xi Wang, an assistant professor in the College of Design, answers questions about how families and schools can use color to better support children with autism. 

Q: How do colors affect people generally? 
Prof. Wang:
Colors profoundly impact our emotions and behavior, influencing how we perceive and interact with the world around us. In various design fields, colors are recognized as powerful tools for shaping our experiences and creating environments that resonate with us emotionally. Colors can evoke specific responses, like the invigorating red of a fitness app or the soothing blue of a meditation website. Colors can also have psychological and physiological effects. For example, in health care design, colors are selected based on evidence and patient needs, with calming tones reducing stress and bold contrasts aiding wayfinding. 

Q: How does color impact children with autism? 
Prof. Wang:
Children with autism spectrum disorder often have unique sensory sensitivities, making them exceptionally responsive to environmental stimuli, including color. In designing spaces for these children, such as classrooms or healthcare facilities, it's essential to consider the impact of color on their sensory experiences. Bright or intense colors may be overwhelming for some children with autism, while softer colors tend to be more calming. 

Q: How can families incorporate autism-friendly colors at home?
Prof. Wang:
Autism-friendly colors typically include muted hues like pale blues, greens, and earth tones, which have a soothing effect. These colors can be incorporated into home decor through wall paint, furniture, textiles, and decorative accents. Creating designated sensory-friendly spaces within the home, equipped with sensory tools and activities tailored to individual preferences, can provide a safe and comfortable retreat. Thoughtful consideration and personalization can ensure the space feels welcoming and supportive for the entire family.

Q: How can schools use this knowledge to better support students?  
Prof. Wang:
Schools can leverage design insights to create inclusive learning environments for students with autism by creating classrooms that promote focus and concentration by incorporating autism-friendly color schemes and minimizing sensory distractions, such as harsh lighting or busy patterns. Just like at home, providing sensory-friendly zones at school offers students a space to retreat and self-regulate. Collaborating with students, families and experts to understand their unique needs and preferences is also essential in creating supportive environments that foster learning and well-being for all students.

Q: What are you currently working on related to color selection?
Prof. Wang:
I am deeply engaged in projects centered around color selection within health care and human-centered empathic design. Specifically, I am collaborating with the U of M Medical School’s CentraCare Regional Campus in St. Cloud to develop new learning environments and make informed color selections with students, faculty, and staff. My research focuses on how colors relate to human behavior and psychology, particularly in promoting well-being. These endeavors involve exploring the nuanced impact of color choices on user experiences and emotional responses, aiming to create environments conducive to healing and holistic wellness.

Cecilia Xi Wang is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. Her research delves into leveraging design thinking to develop intelligent, meaningful, and sustainable experiences, forging novel connections among signs, objects, actions, and ideas. Actively engaged in both teaching and research, Dr. Wang's contributions span various domains, including design philosophy, user experience design, health care design, service design, visual communication design, and multi-disciplinary design. 

About the College of Design
Located in a major design city and in one of the largest research universities in the U.S., the University of Minnesota's College of Design encompasses a full range of design disciplines — including landscape architecture, architecture, retail merchandising, and the design of interiors, graphics, apparel, and other products. Faculty, students, and staff aim to advance the quality of manufactured objects and our natural, built, and social environments through sustainably resilient, socially responsible, civically engaged, and human-centered design collaborations. Learn more at
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“Talking...with U of M” is a resource whereby University of Minnesota faculty answer questions on current and other topics of general interest. Feel free to republish this content. If you would like to schedule an interview with the faculty member or have topics you’d like the University of Minnesota to explore for future “Talking...with U of M,” please contact University Public Relations at [email protected].

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