As a child, Maria Beard designed her dream house. She’s always wanted to create an experience and an environment where people could feel their best. She also played music competitively throughout her teens and college years, figuring out how to bend each song to the right mood and atmosphere, whether it was on the piano or as the principal clarinetist for the Texas A&M University Wind Symphony.
“The intrigue and curiosity in music that I had also carried into other aspects throughout my life,” she says. “I have a passion for learning and wanted to understand what attributes about a business make it successful and meaningful for other people as a result.”
Beard is now vice president of center expansion at Action Behavior Centers (ABC), responsible for curating and creating ideal environments for children on the autism spectrum. It’s a job where a color, a shape, or a design choice can fundamentally shape how children interpret and react to their surroundings.
For those on the spectrum, lighting and color palette can be the difference between a child who feels safe and secure and one who feels anxious and prone to acting out emotionally as well as physically.
Before joining ABC, Beard had a degree and full career in the financial industry, rising to a senior director role in her previous job. Experiences from finance, strategy and analytics to support other functions shaped learnings that played into her role and influence at ABC.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Beard discovered that her son was having difficulties as he began first grade. It was a challenging experience that involved switching school districts and finding a support network so Beard could connect with other parents who were experiencing similar issues. Then, the job at ABC appeared.
“I have such tremendous respect for the entire leadership team at ABC, who were all interested in learning how we can help our staff, kiddos, and parents feel more supported,” Beard says. “There have been several parts to this revitalization of our spaces, but every part sets out to customize the experience to a child’s preferences.”
Beard first immersed herself in studies about the impact of color for those on the autism spectrum. She was pleasantly surprised to find a great deal of research on the subject. Primary colors tended to be perceived less favorably—and the results went much deeper than that.
“You have to consider the luminance factor in the color yellow,” Beard explains. “For some kids, the intensity of light emitted can cause excitement and aggressiveness. Obviously, there are so many different factors, but it’s a good example of the difference a single color can make in a child’s day.”
ABC’s research delved into every corner—literally. Children on the autism spectrum often prefer complex shapes. The star is one example of a preferred shape, so the incorporation of a sky scape theme, including clouds to emulate comfort and a feeling of welcome, was introduced and later, implemented.
Additionally, Beard says many of their students struggle with the idea of imaginary play (for example: preparing a make-believe meal or working at a pretend store). It’s a skill that many children on the spectrum must be taught, so ABC incorporates imaginary play spaces to aid in their development.
“I need to point out that the team here at ABC team is united in our passion for caring for our kiddos,” she says. “They serve kids every single day, and I know it works. I’ve seen the results. This work impacts lives, and I’m so grateful to be a small part of it.”
Buildings of a Higher Grade
Maria Beard knows firsthand just how much the design of a space matters. She’s lived it.
“The high school I attended was designed to efficiently fit a Texas 5A-size volume of students inside. The result was a space that incorporated narrow hallways, low ceilings, and very little light,” Beard remembers. “It just made you feel kind of crunched in.” But while she was at school, a new wing was added and Beard noticed the impact it had on her grades.
“Suddenly I felt like I could succeed,” she says. “There was light and high ceilings and my grades improved. It was this experience that made we realize that I wanted to create environments that inspires learning, attention, and focus.”