Imbuing sensitive and creative artwork for children with autism

Thompson Autism Neurodevelopmental Center Choc 18

Hillary Simon

June 9, 2023

Social Sharing

Walking into healthcare settings can be intimidating and nerve-racking for anyone, but for children with autism and their families—it can be especially overwhelming and possibly traumatic. 

Shaping patient experiences for this population is both especially challenging and impactful. Every nuance of designed space from the inside/out matters: the lighting, wall color, furniture, patient rooms, graphics. It’s these small details that may seem like just nice touches to some that can be a game changer to someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

The Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental Center at CHOC is one of only a handful of clinics across the country dedicated solely to diagnosing, managing, and treating ASD. Upon acquiring a vacant office building in 2018 to be the home of their new center, CHOC knew the interior design was crucial and turned to CannonDesign for guidance. Don Lawrence and Hilary Thomas led one of our project teams to make this space a breakthrough model of care for children with ASD from the moment they walked inside. 

Choc Lobby
CHOC Thompson Autism Center

New situations are incredibly tough for children with autism. Every tiny detail from the noise control, the colors, textures, patterns and spatial qualities can lead an ASD child and their family out the door in distress. That’s why Hilary, Don, and their team used evidence-based design to develop every detail, while working with the CHOC team and came up with a design that would provide comfort and hope for ASD families. 


  • One of our goals was to set up a resource center for parents and families that have children on the spectrum because my experience as a parent with a young autistic child was a nightmare when trying to find resources that could help. Back then, it was difficult to find the type of help available today. This is a one-stop for children with ASD and their families to receive help and I’d love to see this type of space replicated all over the country.

    That’s why it was so important we got this project right. In a way, it was giving back to my son and providing parents the experience I wish we had.

    Don Lawrence Blue Cottage of CannonDesign
Thompson Autism Neurodevelopmental Center Choc 24

Interior Graphic Elements to Help Children with ASD

Muted Color Palette: Using color as a wayfinding tool has proven to be useful for children with autism, but choosing the right colors and tones is critical. Hilary shared that intentionally infusing simple colors helps with wayfinding and creates a calm ambience to reduce  stimulation. 

Glare & Wayfinding: Our design team carefully chose material and lighting with low reflectivity that  helped reduce any glare, which is noted in research to cause distraction. This methods creates a sense of calm and also help separate areas of the clinic to assist with wayfinding. 

Choc Consult Room

Demonstration Graphics: When walking down the building’s corridors, outside each patient activity room is an engaging graphic that demonstrates what this room is used for. For example, the therapy rooms show a child holding a ball and interacting with a staff member. It’s a way for the child to visually understand what they will be doing and avoid surprises.

Peaceful artwork: When choosing art, the design team highlighted peaceful animal and childhood play elements— emotionally-sensitive art that tells a beautiful story. Artwork that shows lions and bears, for example, can be too scary or threatening. 

Avoid Isolation & Distortion: Artwork that shows a fish or a solo animal can create a sense of isolation. Busy artwork can feel overwhelming and too distorted. That’s why the team focused on balancing nature using artwork that embodies togetherness, socialization, and interaction.

"Our design team, which included CHOC representatives and an art consultant, settled on a few themes for each floor: ocean marine life, bubbles, beach-side activities, and astronomy. The marine life has a watercolor feel to soften the art, the bubbles are used in a hide and seek theme with hidden elements, and empty rectangular spaces are on the wall to allow personalization with patient artwork. Those are just a few artwork details that spark creativity and joy," explained Hilary Thomas.


  • When you go in, it is very peaceful and calming and there are a lot of those things that you need for a space for this type of patient. It has been one of the best projects I've ever worked on, and from an experience standpoint, the team collaboration with the client was amazing and we did everything possible to support their patients and families.

    Hilary Thomas CannonDesign interior designer
Thompson Autism Neurodevelopmental Center Choc 12
Thompson Autism Neurodevelopmental Center Choc 5