At its core the Spatial Equity Research Group is interested in design through the lens of social equity, diversity and inclusion. This post is the first in a series exploring how through design the built environment could improve experiences and outcomes for neurodiverse populations.
An architect’s primary responsibility is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, which includes a diverse population with varying degrees of physical and intellectual abilities. Neurodiversity refers to this range of intellectual and cognitive variability with the understanding that populations include a blend of neurotypical and neurodivergent people, who are typically defined as those with differences in communication, learning or behaviors. An architect’s goal is not to design a building exclusively for neurotypical or neurodivergent populations, but rather a building where all individuals feel welcome and comfortable.
A diagram showing two circles side-by-side. The circle on the left is composed of two concentric circles with “neurotypical” in the center and “neurodivergent” encompassing it with a dashed line implying fluidity between the two. The circle on the Right is larger and composed of multiple dashed concentric circles implying that the space within which neurodiversity exists is fluid.
Historically, the built environment has not been a neutral space. More often than not, space is designed with the assumption that all users are neurotypical. However, about 20% of our population experiences some form of neurodivergence. Therefore experience in a space varies from one person to another, each with their own perceptions and abilities to feel comfortable in the environment.
Helen Kane, director of Neuro by Design, notes that “there’s no way that every one of us with the same input will receive, perceive, process and store and then react to the same signals in the same way. It’s just not possible.” She goes on to explain if that were the case, our buildings would be the same built form with no need for alterations specific to the users. Taking neurocognitive variability into consideration is pertinent for good design, and assumptions that all users are not neurotypical can result in architecture that considers both physical and cognitive accessibility.
With this in mind we can begin to understand that designing for neurodiversity is not one single approach, but rather a series of approaches. Aspects of multi-sensory design, universal design, biophilic design, trauma informed design and neuroscience are all woven into the conversation. Proposed as a toolkit for design, these various ingredients could be mixed and matched depending on factors such as user need or desired environmental qualities to create a safe and welcoming neurodiverse environment.
Subtle sensory stimuli can have dramatic effects on behavior. Multi-sensory environments should be productive and help heal.
Inclusive, responsive, flexible, convenient, accommodating, welcoming and realistic.
Closely related to neuroscience, biophilia embraces the way our brain reacts to our surroundings and our innate desire to be in naturalistic environments.
Trauma Informed Design
Physical spaces promote safety, well-being and healing.
Neuroscience provides key insights toward multi-sensory design with valuable insights toward how the brain interprets and is impacted by the environment.
A diagram with a large box at the top encapsulating “ingredients for designing neurodiverse spaces. Five branches stem off of the larges box for the ingredients – multi-sensory design, inclusive/universal design, neuroscience, biophilic design and trauma informed design. Between the 5 branches are dashes lines illustrating the interconnected web between the design ingredients.
Neurodiversity has always been present in our society, but recent discussions have shed more light on the topic. The surge of research on neurodivergence in the workplace, places of learning and healthcare settings has gained traction in discussions with architects and designers. Corporations are considering people other than neurotypical users when examining new and existing workspaces. For example, the BBC’s new headquarters in Wales focused on wellness more holistically, rather than focusing on wellness for “super-fit people and outstanding performance.” For example, understanding that harsh and flickering office lights cause anxiety for some employees, lighting levels in the new facility were reduced and non-flickering LED lights were installed. Multi-sensory design is a key component of designing for neurodiversity and the BBC has also developed a checklist to look at visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile design elements.
A photo of the BBC headquarters interior. Shown are a variety of space types, including small and large meeting rooms and open office seating. A large atrium exposes multiple levels in one image. Large colorful curtains give users the option to separate areas to smaller meeting spaces.
As neurodiversity has become more researched and better understood, it is clear that the built environment has a long way to go in designing and establishing spaces where all humans can thrive. The assumption that all users are neurotypical is outdated and simply untrue, and we as designers are missing opportunities to be more sensitive to the neurodivergent population. There are a myriad of questions to be asked regarding the designer’s role, how the design process can include more input from people with cognitive dissonance, who is being excluded and more.
At Payette, we have begun to dive deeper into how we can bring light to this topic and educate ourselves, our clients and the rest of the design world. We are examining past and future projects through the lens of neurodivergent users. Some of these conversations will be shared through a series of blog posts highlighting neurodiversity in our science and healthcare project typologies, as well as conversations with thought leaders on related topics. We are curious to learn more about the intersection of neurodiversity and the built environment and look forward to future conversations to innovate more inclusive spaces in our buildings.
Harvard Health Blog: What is neurodiversity?
Neuro by Design
Continuing Education: Design for Neurodiversity
Sarah Williams Goldhagen: There’s no such thing as a neutral space