Designing Inclusively: Accommodating Neurodivergent Minds
Architectural design is a powerful tool for shaping our environments’ foundations and influencing our daily lives. To create comfortable, supportive, and productive homes, schools, and workplaces, we must recognize that not all of us share similar experiences with the built environment.
Part of designing inclusively means understanding neurodiversity, addressing the needs of neurodivergent individuals, and seamlessly integrating that knowledge to create spaces that work for everyone, allowing neurodivergent individuals to live, learn, and work authentically.
This essay explores how architecture can be developed to accommodate neurodivergent minds through sensory-sensitive design, thoughtful spatial planning, and promoting a sense of belonging.
Follow along to learn more.
What Is Neurodiversity?
Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term “neurodiversity,” specifically referring to the undeniable infinite “variability of human neurocognition and the uniqueness of each human mind” within the various habitats.
In other words, no one perceives the world the same as another, creating endlessly varying ranges of cognitive and physical abilities. This diversity naturally results in behavioral, communication, and learning differences.
Neurodivergent & Neurotypical
Living in a neurodiverse world, we can recognize two human subpopulations: the neurodivergent (neurominorities) and the neurotypical.
- “Neurotypical” refers to people with “typical” functioning brains that process information and behaviors in ways that match the “normal” societal standard.
- “Neurodivergence” refers to the individuals of the neurodivergent community whose neurological conditions set them apart from the “normal” societal standard.
Living in a world that has developed in favor of the neurotypical presents unique challenges in navigating and engaging with architectural spaces for the neurodivergent community.
One of the primary considerations when designing for neurodivergent individuals is creating sensory-sensitive spaces.
Sensory processing sensitivity and disorder are common among neurodivergent individuals, and architects can address this by controlling environmental stimuli like light and sound.
We should also look beyond the five senses, accounting for proprioception and vestibular sense, the ability to sense our body, its limbs, and their movement and position in a space, and coordinated eye movements, posture, and balance associated with the inner ear.
Lighting & Photosensitivity
For a passive, non-stimulating space that improves concentration and mood, architects should:
- for natural lighting when possible
- Use adjustable lower, indirect lighting when necessary.
- Avoid LED and fluorescent light bulbs or strips.
Educational and workplace facilities can benefit significantly from an acoustic design that creates sensory environments that minimize noise levels for spaces that serve people with auditory sensitivities.
However, some neurodivergent individuals function better with more stimulation as it soothes their nervous system. So, architects must design space within the building to serve both auditory needs.
Ways to manipulate sound include:
- Sound-Absorbing Materials,
- Strategic Window Placement, and
- Innovative HVAC systems.
Proprioception & Vestibular Sense
Proprioception is our ability to sense the movement and position of our body and limbs within a space.
The vestibular sense is our brain’s ability to appropriately respond to the messages from inner ear nerve cells, allowing our bodies to coordinate eye movements, posture, and balance associated with the inner ear.
A healthier and safer environment for proprioception disorder and a dysregulated vestibular sense could include:
- Rounded Designs and Furniture (Fewer Sharp Edges)
- Easy-To-Navigate Stairs
- Visibly Obvious Transitions Between Floor Levels and Other Surfaces
Spatial planning is critical to accommodating neurodivergent minds.
Open-plan offices and public spaces may be overwhelming for individuals with sensory sensitivities or social anxiety. Architects can address this by incorporating flexible design elements, allowing for customizable spaces.
We can empower individuals to create specific environments that suit their needs by applying:
- Modular Furniture,
- Movable Partitions, and
- Adjustable Dividers.
Those with autism spectrum disorders may struggle with spatial awareness and orientation, complicating wayfinding and navigation. Architects can make spaces more navigable and less disorienting by facilitating wayfinding through:
- Clear Signage,
- Color-Coding, and
Fostering a Sense of Belonging
Inclusive architecture goes beyond mere accommodation; it should strive to foster a universal sense of belonging. This can be achieved by creating welcoming spaces and promoting social interaction without imposing it.
Community centers can benefit from outdoor sensory gardens that offer a peaceful retreat from the sensory overload of urban life, allowing neurodivergent individuals to engage with nature on their own terms.
Moreover, the aesthetics of a space can significantly impact emotional well-being.
In healthcare facilities, soothing and non-clinical design elements can reduce anxiety for patients with neurodevelopmental conditions. Calming colors, tactile materials, and artwork can create a more comforting and reassuring environment.
Collaborative Design Processes
To effectively accommodate neurodiversity, architects must engage in collaborative design processes that include input from neurodivergent individuals, caregivers, and specialists. This participatory approach ensures that design professional(s) consider the varying unique neurodivergent needs and perspectives throughout the design process.
Architects also benefit from ongoing neurodiversity awareness education and training, using that knowledge to inform design decisions related to sensory elements, spatial planning, and overall aesthetics.
Understanding the wide range of neurodivergent experiences is essential for creating legitimate, inclusive designs.
Several architectural projects have successfully embraced inclusive design principles for the neurodivergent community.
The Maggie’s Centre in Dundee, Scotland, designed by Frank Gehry, is a notable example. This cancer support center features a welcoming and non-institutional design, with warm and homely interiors that help reduce patient anxiety.
Another exemplary project is the Sensory Trust’s accessible gardens and green spaces designed to engage all the senses. These gardens incorporate tactile elements, calming water features, and carefully selected plants to create therapeutic and enjoyable spaces for individuals with sensory sensitivities.
In conclusion, architecture profoundly impacts neurodivergent individuals’ well-being with its extreme influence on the formation of behavioral and cognitive societal standards. We cannot have a more inclusive society if the environments where we exist with each other daily are not inclusive themselves.
Designing for neurodivergent minds involves sensory-sensitive design, thoughtful spatial planning, promoting a sense of belonging, and collaboration between the neurodivergent community and design experts.
By embracing these principles and sharing best practices, architects and designers can contribute to a more inclusive neurodiverse society where everyone can thrive in their built environment.
In celebrating the rich diversity of the human experience through architectural design, the more space we can create in the world where we can all live as our authentic selves.
Designing Inclusively at Mitchell Wall Architecture & Design
At Mitchell Wall Architecture & Design, the Architect’s responsibility to protect public health, safety, and welfare is at the forefront of all our designs and operations. Fulfilling that responsibility goes beyond local code and ordinance requirements.
We utilize every available resource to ensure each project is a success. This means collaborating with our clients, communicating efficiently and thoroughly with engineers and contractors, and continuing to create and implement innovative design solutions.
Through architectural design, we can create an incredible, comfortable, and inclusive built environment that makes everyone feel at home.
We are all singularly unique, so why shouldn’t our spaces be? To learn about Mitchell Wall Architecture & Design, please visit https://mitchellwall.com/contact/.