How to Create a Sensory-Friendly and Accessible College Dorm

A room in a student dormitory with a bunk bed, a large window and a desk. Horizontal photo

By Rachel Newcomb

October 6, 2023

Many changes come with heading off to college, and it can be both an exciting and nerve-wracking experience for students. Someone with a physical disability or one who experiences a sensory processing disorder may benefit from setting up their dorm space to support their individual needs. And if a roommate or new college friend has sensory sensitivities or a physical disability, one can learn how to support them in their new dorm.

We spoke with experts in the field about how to create a supportive and comfortable dorm room:


Before Moving In: Questions to Ask About Student Housing

Every student has different needs when moving into a college dorm. You can ask specific questions about your situation and requirements when evaluating student housing options. Here are some questions that may be helpful to ask:

Room features:

Noise and sensory factors:

Support services:

Transportation and accessibility:


How to Make Your New Dorm Room Accessible

Transitioning to college life is an exciting adventure for any student, but it can present unique challenges for those with physical disabilities, who may have to advocate for themselves when the default space is not supportive of their needs—even if the space is technically compliant with accessibility standards.

“While accessibility is about removing barriers and complying with codes, inclusive design [and] inclusive spaces is about understanding and having it at the forefront of your mind that your building/spaces should be for everyone,” says Maisel.

Various additions and modifications to a dorm room may help create a comfortable space.

Calendars and Memory Aids

Calendars and memory aids are excellent dorm modifications for students who may experience cognitive challenges, such as difficulty remembering schedules or tasks. These management tools, such as calendar clocks or voice-activated devices programmed with reminders, can help students stay organized and on schedule.

Furniture and Fixtures With Security Features

Security features such as grab bars, bed rails, and stable furniture can help prevent falls and support students with limited mobility or balance issues. 

Nonslip Rugs and Mats

Nonslip rugs and mats provide a stable and secure surface that reduces the risk of slips, trips, and falls. You can also consider taping the edges down to prevent trips over curled-up edges.

Voice-Activated Controls

Voice-activated controls allow students with physical disabilities to interact with various devices and systems without physical touch or manipulation. Those with limited mobility or dexterity will especially benefit from this accessibility feature.


How to Design a Dorm to Be Sensory-Friendly

Creating a sensory-friendly dorm room for students with autism or a sensory processing disorder can promote well-being, reduce stress, and enhance focus. Sensory-related disabilities can require different accommodations, and Maisel says that “a key to creating a sensory-friendly [and] inclusive space is integrating redundancy, flexibility, and opportunities for personalization.”

A helpful starting point is to think through the senses and choose decor and furniture that works with each one.

“Some individuals with autism may experience noise sensitivity, sensory processing challenges, have difficulty with change in familiar settings or routines, and struggle with social communication and interactions,” says Frost. “Try to reduce things that may overwhelm the senses such as loud noises, strong smells, or fluorescent lighting.”

Sight Modifications

Sensory-friendly lighting is important because it can help promote a calming environment, explains Frost. “You may incorporate calming features such as sensory-friendly lighting, calming colors, and soothing tactile experiences,” she adds.

Blackout Curtains

Blackout curtains can help create a cozy and private sleeping space shielded from external stimuli, which is ideal for students with sensory limitations. When you choose a curtain, make sure to select high-quality blackout curtains.

Soft Lighting Solutions

Fluorescent lighting can be unsettling, especially for students with sensory sensitivities. Opt for soft, warm-toned lighting options such as floor lamps, string lights, or Himalayan salt lamps. Install adjustable lighting fixtures that allow you to control the brightness level. Additionally, use lampshades or diffusers to soften and distribute light more evenly.

Muted Bedroom Colors

“When creating a sensory-friendly space, it’s important to consider factors to make the space as calming to the senses as possible,” says Frost. She recommends using muted colors, such as soft blues or greens, and warm neutrals. Avoid overly bright or contrasting colors that might be visually overwhelming.

Visual Organization 

An organized and clutter-free environment can help reduce sensory overload. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Use bins, shelves, and under-bed storage to create a minimalistic look.

Sound and Smell Modifications

Frost recommends reducing loud noises and strong smells. Unfortunately, in a shared dormitory setting, these things can be out of one person’s control. Still, there are some options that can help:

Noise-Canceling Headphones

Dorm life can be noisy, making it challenging for students to concentrate or relax. Noise-canceling headphones are a game-changer for individuals who need a quiet space, as they can block out external sounds.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy diffusers can have a positive impact on mood and relaxation. As long as you ensure that the scents are not overpowering and don’t trigger allergies, you can fill the room with calming scents like lavender or eucalyptus.

Touch Modifications

People with sensory processing disorders may be overly sensitive to textures, while others crave tactile input, Frost explains. You can incorporate textures in the dorm room through the following:

Sensory Pillows

Sensory pillows incorporate textures like bumps, ridges, or different fabric patterns. These textures offer tactile stimulation, which can be soothing and engaging for individuals with sensory disabilities.

Wall Decor

Decorate walls with touchable elements such as textured wall panels, fabric hangings, or wall decals with raised patterns. These additions can create a visually appealing and sensory-rich environment.


Organizations That Provide Support for Students With Disabilities

Many organizations provide advocates, resources, and empowerment for students with physical and sensory disabilities. If you’d like to learn more, check out the following.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

With an audiologist network of more than 228,000 members and affiliates, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) supports individuals with speech, language, and hearing disorders. Its goal is to improve communication and accessibility for people with hearing impairments by providing timely resources.

Autistic Self Advocacy Network

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is dedicated to promoting and supporting the rights of those with autism as well as boosting their self-advocacy and inclusion. It focuses on community-building, public policy advocacy, and educational initiatives to ensure that individuals with autism have a voice in decision-making.

Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) is a leading national civil rights law and policy center dedicated to advancing the rights of people with disabilities. To ensure equal access and opportunities for individuals with disabilities, it provides legal advocacy, education, and resources.

Learning Disabilities Association of America

The Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) provides support and resources for individuals with learning disabilities, their families, and professionals. By providing information and advocacy, it claims to be “the voice for individuals with learning disabilities of all ages.”

National Center for Learning Disabilities

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) focuses on education and research to empower students with learning challenges. This organization believes that students with learning disabilities often fail in school because of a lack of support from their peers, not because they are less capable. Specifically, NCLD works to improve outcomes for people with learning and attention issues.


How College Students Can Support Peers with Disabilities

Providing support for college peers with disabilities promotes inclusivity and makes campuses more welcoming. “Inclusive spaces are important because they enable and empower a diverse population by improving not just human performance, but also health and wellness and social participation,” says Maisel.

Here are some ways students can help their college peers with disabilities:


Our Recommendation

While students with disabilities might need to make their college dorms more accessible, it is still a fun experience. Better yet, a sensory-friendly and accessible college dorm celebrates uniqueness and ensures that the space reflects personality, so be sure to incorporate specific needs.

“Most importantly, remember that all individuals are different, and it’s best to ask for input from whomever you are creating your sensory-friendly space for,” says Frost.


Our Experts

Zina Kumok

Bianca Frost, BCBA, is the program director at Turning Pointe Autism Foundation, overseeing student progress and the use of evidence-based interventions across all Turning Pointe programs. In addition to her work at Turning Pointe, Frost leads a consultative team that partners with school districts and outside agencies to better student outcomes and/or to complete necessary behavioral evaluations. Frost has been with Turning Pointe for nine years, seven of which were spent serving as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Her personal experience—being a sibling and caregiver of someone with special needs—gives Frost a unique perspective on the challenges and triumphs of working within the special education field.

Jordana Maisel, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo (UB) and the director of research at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA). Maisel has more than 20 years of experience designing and conducting experimental studies in the laboratory and field in the areas of public transportation, street infrastructure, post-occupancy evaluations, and accessible housing policy. In addition to more than a dozen peer-reviewed publications, she co-authored the Goals of Universal Design and three books. In 2022, Maisel received UB’s Exceptional Scholar, Young Investigator Award.