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The Effects of Color on Autistic Children; Part II: Problematic Colors

problematic colors

Colors can be calming, soothing, and conducive to learning, or they can be agitating, confusing, and painful to an autistic child. By examining the Psychology of Color (Chromology), Feng Shui (ancient Chinese art and science), and Chroma Therapy, or Color Therapy (a form of holistic medicine), we can see that traditionally specific colors have different effects and emotional associations. Let’s take a look at some colors (red, yellow, black, and grey) that can be problematic, and consider how they may affect an autistic individual.

The RED Stop Sign

A stop sign is red for a reason, so when you think of colors to make your autistic child more comfortable in their surroundings, you may want to come to a complete stop and read further. Red dominates our culture as a symbol of strong feelings, and creates feelings of excitement. It is warm, energizing, courageous, and evokes strong emotions of love and comfort. In Feng Shui red represents happiness, fire, strength, and fame. Chroma Therapy uses red to enhance physical energy, and increase blood pressure in people with chronic hypertension. Red is also considered an intense, or even angry thus the phrase, “seeing red.” Although, red has many warm loving emotional associations, the intensity of the color may be overwhelming or even painful to look at for an autistic child. When anxious or agitated, aggression and anger can surface. Excitement, physical energy, increased blood pressure, and intense emotions may not be the right combination for your sensitive autistic child.

YELLOW Cautionary Light

Ever wonder why caution lights are yellow? Yellow is the happiest color on the planet but too much or too saturated a yellow will tend to over-stimulate our senses. Psychologically, yellow is the strongest emotionally stimulating color. It can turn people suddenly cranky, overstimulate digestion, make them overly detailed oriented, or make them flee the area. The long wavelengths ensure that yellow is the first color you “see” when looking at a design or room, and is the most fatiguing on the eyes. Although the correct tones are associated with high spirits, self-esteem, confidence, optimism, life, warmth and vibrancy, getting the tone wrong can give rise to anxiety and fear. These tones are subjective to each individual. Pale yellows are great for mental accuracy and stimulate the thought processes, and are used in Chroma Therapy to regain or maintain a grounded but positive outlook. The phrase “yellow bellied,” used to describe a coward may stem from the fear and anxiety associated with the color, or it may be more literal in origin. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, yellow is associated with the spleen, stomach, and pancreas and governs our digestion. Feng Shui cautions against using yellows in areas where children spend a lot of time because of their tendency to be influenced by their surroundings. Heed the flashing yellow lights; proceeding with a yellow color-scheme around your autistic child without using extreme care can be risky.


According to color psychology, pure grey is the only color that has no direct psychological properties. It is, however, quite suppressive. It can make someone feel frustrated, or hopeless. A virtual absence of color is depressing and when the world turns grey (as it does in winter) we are instinctively conditioned to draw in and prepare for hibernation. It can also “dampen” other colors like grey skies. The sun shining uplifts our spirits, but when the days are grey or rainy it makes us want to stay in bed. This can be especially true for people with autism who seem to be more affected by their environments than neuro-typical people. I would approach grays gently.


Black is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, although, in ancient Egypt, black represented life and rebirth. It is also associated with unhappiness, sexuality, formality, and sophistication. Black can represent a negative side, or lack of hope, and make us feel low and depressed. For the sensitive child, black will likely be depressive and may cause withdrawal.

To evaluate how these colors affect your family, monitor the rooms in which you have placed them (especially if you have yellow walls), notice the behaviors you experience there and take note of how you feel. Does the yellow make you feel happy, or do you get cranky quickly? Does your child respond in the same way?


Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.

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