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Special School District of St. Louis County
Primary Colors Should be Secondary in the Classroom
Walls covered with brightly colored artwork and bulletin boards. The sound of computers humming and the smell of glue. These are the typical things one might notice when entering a classroom.

Erin & Mary
Mary Huelsmann and Erin LeClerc
When Erin LeClerc and Mary Huelsmann walk into a classroom they can’t help but notice the layout and design of a room. While they are parents, they also are an interior designer and architect respectively. LeClerc is the Interior Design program coordinator and an assistant professor and Huelsmann is an associate professor and Architectural Technology program coordinator, both at St. Louis Community College.

“It’s automatic that I think about the colors, textures, lighting and layout of a classroom when I walk in,” said Huelsmann. “As both a parent of a daughter who has sensory needs associated with Fragile X and an architect, I’m entrenched in these things every day.”

Huelsmann’s daughter, Lizzie, was diagnosed with Fragile X in 2010. Fragile X is a genetic condition that causes intellectual disability, behavioral and learning challenges and various physical characteristics.

“We are just beginning to understand Fragile X and seek out the best supports for Lizzie now that we have a diagnosis,” said Huelsmann.

Huelsmann recently used her personal experiences and professional knowledge to help Shayla Sonntag, a student in LeClerc’s Interior Design program. Sonntag was tasked with designing a therapy center. The assignment details were to design a space to meet the needs of individuals with autism, juvenile diabetes or multiple sclerosis.

“When I first heard about the project I thought, this is going to be depressing. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’ve always been interested in residential design and not commercial because commercial doesn’t seem personal,” said Sonntag. “Then one day in my architecture class my instructor Mary Huelsmann was talking about her daughter with Fragile X. I had never heard of that. I should do that, I thought. I wanted to have some kind of connection to the project. I didn’t want to just write a research paper; I wanted to have a heart connection.”

Sonntag approached LeClerc with the idea and was encouraged.

“Erin gave me the push to move forward. She said go with it. Go talk to Mary. I was really hesitant because I didn’t want to offend Mary. Mary was so excited about it. I was like, man, I’ve got to do this. I mean really do this,” said Sonntag.

Sonntag spent time with Huelsmann learning about Fragile X and how it affects children and families so she could design a space that would be both functional and a place of comfort for families.

“After talking with Mary and finishing my research piece of the project, I was wowed. Every conversation with Mary was long and full of emotion. How personal I could make this project was incredible,” said Sonntag. “Every detail in the therapy center has purpose. Even the little things, down to the doorknobs, light switches and handrails.”

“Mary described that how Lizzie and children with Fragile X take in information is extremely sensory and they can get overwhelmed,” she added. “So, I created an alcove in the medical center, a space for kids to go to get away from everything. The alcove is full of sensory items, like a fuzzy white chair, a swing and huge pillows.”

Shayla Sonntag
Shayla Sonntag
Sonntag also designed spaces that were similar to things kids would experience outside of the therapeutic setting so that skills could be more easily generalized. The occupational therapy room is designed to be similar to a gym. The speech therapy room resembles a school setting. There’s a kitchen area and a library setting. Other details include colored way-finding dots on the floor leading to corresponding colored rooms so kids can find rooms on their own. Each room also has handrails on the walls so that there is always something to feel and grip, which is soothing for children with sensory needs.

“Talking with Mary really allowed Shayla to get emotionally invested in the project,” said LeClerc.

“Afterwards, I wanted to change career paths and be a nurse in a therapeutic center for kids with Fragile X,” said Sonntag. “I thought about how careful I was in designing a therapy center, and Mary has to be careful like this every day. This project made me want to get involved and make people aware of Fragile X.”

When Sonntag met Lizzie after completing her project, she describes the experience being like meeting a celebrity.

“Throughout the design process, I kept asking myself, would Lizzie like this? How would this help Lizzie? Would this interest Lizzie? So, when I met her it was exciting to spend time with the person I had been thinking about for so long,” said Sonntag.

Sonntag has decided she won’t change career paths and will continue in the Interior Design field. But she hopes that her designs and the knowledge she gained from the project will be meaningful and have an impact on families of children with special needs.

“I want people to see what a big deal this is. I want them to know about Fragile X. I wish my design was real so kids with Fragile X could learn and grow in an atmosphere that is designed just for them,” said Sonntag.

For more information on Fragile X, visit

For more information about the Interior Design and Architectural Technology programs at St. Louis Community College, visit
LeClerc and Huelsmann share their expertise on designing a classroom for maximum learning, especially for kids with disabilities:
  • Choose soothing, neutral colors and not bright colors. Students should be energized by learning and not the colors on the wall.
  • Think about having surfaces that absorb noise in the room to eliminate as much sound distraction as possible. Carpet, area rugs and corkboard are examples of noise absorbing materials.
  • Natural lighting is ideal. If fluorescent lighting is necessary, use light filters that will eliminate harsh light and are heat resistant. A light blue color would be best as it reflects the color of the sky during daylight hours. Fluorescent lighting can be particularly distracting for students with sensory needs, such as students with autism or Fragile X.
  • Allow for students to have enough personal space within the classroom. While group work areas are fine, students require their own space.
  • Organization and labeling of materials eliminates distraction and makes a room more efficient for students.
  • Less is more. Having walls covered can be overwhelming for some students and distracting for others.
  • Use a variety of materials with different textures within the classroom, including silky, furry and nubby materials. This is especially important for students that have tactile needs.
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Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
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