Dr. Shireen Kanakri came to the United States from Jordan in 2008 to earn a PhD in architecture at Texas A&M.

She had an idea that she wanted to pursue a career in health care design. She spent a lot of time observing hospitals. Several had centers for children with autism.

Kanakri didn’t like what she saw. The centers looked cold and uncomfortable, with gray colors and huge, glaring windows — or rooms without any windows.

After speaking with architects who designed these facilities, she found there were no guidelines that would allow them to design rooms just for this special population. She wanted to know exactly how interior design affects people with autism. Her goal is to make their lives more comfortable when they are indoors.

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A mother herself, Kanakri knew how, with kids, sometimes small things can change their lives. “I said to myself, I should do something for them.”

Kanakri is an associate professor of interior design in the R. Wayne Estopinal College of Architecture and Planning. She’s also an affiliate faculty member in the Teachers College Center for Autism Spectrum Disorder and she leads the Health Environmental Design Research Lab (HEDR) located in the Applied Technology College building.

Her research offers proof that interior design is about more than just enhancing a room’s look; it’s also about improving its functionality.

As part of Kanakri’s research, parents are brought in to play with their child inside the lab while the researcher monitors them outside. Kanakri uses the lab to record how children respond to specific environmental factors, from lighting, to paint colors, to sound, and more. In addition to behavioral observations, the professor and her students monitor brain activity, blood pressure, and heartbeat.

Her ongoing studies have been widely published and internationally recognized for the ways they combine interior design, architecture environmental psychology, and health. The results could not just improve the lives of kids with autism but children and their families everywhere.

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