Skip to content

Designing Housing for People With I/DD

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be very sensitive to their surroundings. Here’s how to help create a comfortable and comforting home

Scenes from The Center for Discovery campus

Photos courtesy of The Center for Discovery (3) and Rick Remington (1)

Clockwise from top left: Academic buildings and gardens at The Center for Discovery; the living room of a residence; the exteriors of two residences.

Like other programs for people with complex disabilities, the origin story of The Center for Discovery, located in Harris, New York, begins with parents. (Also see “Parents Are Creating Communities for Their Grown Children Who Have Special Needs.”) In this case, the history dates back to 1948, when a group of parents from New York’s Sullivan County began meeting to discuss the needs of their physically challenged children.

The Center for Discovery is a school and residence for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, medical frailties, rare disorders and a variety of aging issues. More than 175 adults from ages 21 to 87 live in small, personalized homes on the farm-like campus or in nearby towns.

The residents receive around the clock supervision, yet with the goal to “facilitate the independence and self-reliance to the greatest degree possible.” Between its residential, medical, clinical and special education programs, The Center for Discovery serves 1,200 children and adults each year.

Theresa Hamlin, Ed.D., is the president of The Center for Discovery, and the author of Autism and the Stress Effect.

“Our individuals with autism often have really high anxiety and chronic stress, both of which really affect how they function. So everything we do is designed to reduce that burden of stress,” Hamlin explains. “People can handle only so much before they start to shut down.”

Following are some of the design and decorating features and techiniques that can make housing more comfortable for people with I/DD:

  • Muted Colors: Temple Grandin, Ph.D., who is both a person with autism and a renowned expert in autism and animal behavior, assisted in The Center for Discovery’s design. Muted southwestern colors are used in and outside the houses, and there's a lot of natural light. “Muted colors are much better than primary colors as stress reducers, as is natural light,” says Hamlin. “If you look at spas, they use those gray Zen-like colors. Parents can do this when they’re creating their child’s bedroom.”
  • Winding Pathways: The Center for Discovery’s outdoor walking paths are not straight lines since paths that weave in and out are known to reduce stress levels.
  • Soothing Green: Having a plant or several plants, or being able to see greenery out of a window, has a calming effect. Studies demonstrate better healing and less pain among patients who are able to see a tree rather than a brick wall outside of their window. When looking out upon greenery isn’t an option, perhaps due to living in a high-rise in New York City, having some plants in the room helps.
  • Lower the Noise: Common sounds as simple as a telephone ring can induce stress. Hanging a tapestry, as opposed to a painting, on a wall helps absorb some sounds.
  • Simplify and Declutter: Strive for simpler environments without a lot of clutter or places that are highly organized. The goal is to not overstimulate residents.

Family Caregiving

AARP has resources and information for caregivers. Learn more at

  • Benches for Transitions: A transition can cause a lot of stress.“So we developed what we call transitional benches outside of classrooms or when you enter some of the homes of our individuals here,” explains Hamlin. When people sit on the bench, they have a few minutes — whether they're coming or going from that environment — to understand what's coming next. For many people, after taking a bit of time to understand what's coming next and absorbing it, they stand right up and go their way. “People with autism generally love activity," she adds. "So it isn’t an avoidance of activity. However, a change in the routine without added time to process what’s coming next is stressful.

“Where the child or adult with autism lives, learns and plays is very important to their overall health and well-being,” says Hamlin. “Take the time to look at and listen to what’s going on in their environment. If there are objects, colors, sounds or smells that can be stressful, try to eliminate or substitute them with calming solutions. If you’re at a loss for ideas, just Google ‘calming environments’ and choose the best solution for your situation.”

Amy Lennard Goehner is the parent of an adult son with I/DD who lives at The Center for Discovery. Learn more by reading "Finding a Forever Home for My Adult Son With Special Needs."

Related Articles

* The inclusion of The Center for Discovery in the articles "Designing Housing for People With I/DD" and “Finding a 'Forever Home' for My Adult Son With Autism" is not an endorsement by AARP. 

Page published November 2021

Our Free Publications!

See the complete list at

Follow Us

Contact Us

  • Email AARP Livable Communities at

  • Ask about the AARP Livability Index by completing this online form.

  • AARP Members: For questions about your benefits, AARP The Magazine or the AARP Bulletin, visit the AARP Contact Us page or call 1-888-OUR-AARP (1-888-687-2277).