By Kim Palmer
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
A.J. Paron-Wildes’ home, a walk-out rambler in suburban Oak Park Heights, Minn., is a study in calm, all clean, uncluttered spaces and earthy, neutral hues that echo the autumn leaves framing the view of the St. Croix River.
On an autumn afternoon, daughter Eva, 6, is having an after-school snack, while son Devin, 19, sketches intently, seated at the studio desk in his orderly bedroom.
This peaceful environment is entirely by design. When you have an autistic child, calm is a precious commodity, and Paron-Wildes has become an expert at creating it, starting in her own home.
That journey started 16 years ago when Devin was diagnosed with autism at age 3. “It was very traumatic,” Paron-Wildes recalled.
At that time, Devin didn’t speak but was prone to explosive tantrums when he was upset or confused. “He’d drop to the floor and start screaming.”
She and her husband stopped bringing Devin to the grocery store or on other errands because they never knew what might trigger an eruption. “We’d have to drop everything and leave.”
At the time of Devin’s diagnosis, Paron-Wildes was a very young interior designer, only recently graduated from the University of Minnesota. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be some great research'” about designing spaces for autistic children, but she was wrong.
“There was nothing,” she recalled. “Everything was done in the ’70s, when kids were institutionalized.”
Determined to keep Devin at home, Paron-Wildes committed herself to creating an environment where he could learn and thrive. So she started educating herself, by working backwards.
She read books about autism, and pored over studies about the neurological workings of the brain, becoming fascinated by the different ways autistic people perceive colors, patterns and lighting. She tried to determine what design elements would likely trigger difficult behavior, and then did the opposite, learning through trial and error.