Designing for neurodiversity: Creating spaces that are inclusive of all
March 13, 2023
March 13, 2023
Physical accessibility is part of design for the public realm. It’s important to design for neurological accessibility too. Here’s how.
Think about the public places we go to: hospitals, schools, libraries, or shopping centers. Most of these buildings are likely, and even legally required to be, wheelchair accessible. Today, accessibility is a given. But that wasn’t the case only a handful of decades ago.
Advocacy, awareness, and acceptance drove design change for physical accessibility. Now the same efforts are underway for neurological accessibility. During Neurodiversity Celebration Week, which started March 13, 2023, it’s important to think about design. How we design buildings and public spaces impacts people. It’s particularly important to think about those who experience our world in unique ways.
Neurodiversity encompasses the different ways our brains work. Words like “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” are often used to acknowledge that some profiles, like autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, aren’t experienced by the majority.
Neurodivergence is more common than previously thought. Many studies show 15 to 20 percent of people experience it, with some studies reporting closer to 40 percent.
Some challenges for individuals with neurodivergent profiles result from misalignment between people’s needs and their environment.
As a student with autism shared: “We are freshwater fish in salt water. Put us in fresh water and we function just fine. Put us in salt water and we struggle to survive.”
Also, in terms of neurotype, people tend to be hypersensitive or hyposensitive. Sometimes they fall somewhere in between. Hypersensitive people prefer environments with controlled stimuli and dislike those with excessive stimuli such as bright lights, noise, unfamiliar scents, too many textures and colors, or temperature fluctuations. On the contrary, hyposensitive people prefer those things and perform best with more sensory stimuli. Therefore, an inclusive approach to design results in spaces where everyone feels supported to be their best.
It’s easy to look back at decades of design and see spaces created to help different personalities feel comfortable. Perhaps without even thinking of it, we were designing for neurodiversity. Now, we’re growing our expertise and better articulating neurodiversity as part of our process.
Our Stantec team has designed spaces specifically for those with autism. An example of this is two facilities in Texas—the Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio and the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Outreach. They were purpose-built to serve neurodivergent portions of the population. But inevitably, those who are neurodivergent will use any building or facility we design today. That means the principles and materials from these projects are applicable to other work, too.
It's critical to consider every part of the design. It starts with the space planning and furniture selection. We must provide a variety of settings where people with different neurotypes can feel comfortable.
In a workplace, for example, we aim to create a mixture of spaces. These will offer places for concentration, collaboration, socialization, and contemplation.
In a healthcare setting, we want spaces that are noninstitutional and welcoming. For the design of patient waiting areas, we take inspiration from hospitality design and create a variety of seating options, some more open and others more enclosed. Patient rooms are designed to be functional but also flexible. The ability for the patient to control and personalize their space is key.
It’s also essential to think about the correct choice of color, pattern, and textures when designing for neurodiversity. We use colors and textures to stimulate or calm down interior environments as needed.
The correct lighting also plays an important role in every interior setting. The first goal is to maximize the natural daylight in the space. Second, look at the artificial light. What is the intensity and temperature? Can it be dimmed or adjusted by the users?
The right view of people’s proximity, acoustics, and even temperature and smell can improve spaces for neurodiverse people. Following best practice, selecting the right materials, and creating the right conditions are essential.
But including the people who will use the space from the outset is the most important step designers can take to deliver great projects. Inclusive design is best viewed as a methodology rather than just an outcome.
Considering the end users of designs is essential. If we’re building a park, who’s using the park? If we’re building a transport line, who’s traveling on it? We must not just identify those people but also involve them in the design process from the start.
It’s important to create an office with the ability to flex, thinking about the office as a living thing that can support the future needs of employees and visitors, too.
Our teams are working to see how we can make our own office designs more supportive of everyone, including in the context of neurodiversity. We recently opened a new office in Pune, India. It is huge, with space for 1,000 employees.
When our team was designing such a vast space, we had to consider return-to-work patterns post-pandemic, as well as culture, sustainability, and well-being. Much of what we included for neurodiversity—a focus on wellness—makes every space better. Our design team created a mixture of spaces and furniture settings where people can congregate, collaborate, or retreat—dependent on needs and preferences.
Biophilic design principles—or the use of natural materials, greenery, access to daylight, and good air quality—also played an important role in the design of the new office.
We also considered neurodiversity in the design of our London office in the United Kingdom, which opened last year. Today, we’re continuing to evaluate how the space meets our teams’ needs—and if adjustments need to be made.
It’s important to create an office with the ability to flex, thinking about the office as a living thing that can support the future needs of employees and visitors, too. We continue to consider whether we’ve created a space that welcomes and supports people, so they feel comfortable and want to come back day after day. What we learn in our own office spaces help us design better for neurodiversity elsewhere as well.
What we’re seeing in our own offices is that it’s not really “neurodiverse design,” it’s simply “good design.”
Neurodivergent people are often high energy, out-of-the-box thinkers who are bold problem solvers. But navigating the modern workplace can be a challenge. Since almost all companies believe their best assets are their employees, it’s critical that workplaces—and, really, every place—allows everyone to thrive.
We know environmental factors change our life experience. They can repel us or engage us. For those who are neurodivergent, that is even more so.
Designing for neurological accessibility is another step to a more inclusive world.