Designing for Neurodiversity

Inclusive design recognizes the importance of creating environments that support a wide range of physical abilities and neurodiverse individuals. From classrooms to boardrooms, spaces that respond to a wider range of needs, sensitivities and behaviors benefit everyone.

Everyone is different in terms of how they process information from their physical and social environment. Harnessing the strengths and talents of neurodiverse individuals starts with recognition of these differences to create environments that reflect the variations in the ways people respond to stimuli and interact with physical spaces and one another.

Neurodiversity is commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, as well as other diagnosed learning disorders and age-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But neurodiversity itself is more widely shared, as it encompasses all variations in human thinking, making up approximately 15–20% of the general population.

Research highlights that neurodiversity is not defined by a deficiency in comprehension, but rather a difference in how people process information. From learning spaces that support students to workplaces that foster the best in employees, studies show that an evidence-based approach to designing physical environments that improve the experience for neurodivergent individuals contributes to more-inclusive and supportive spaces for all individuals.

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Environments should recognize the variations in the ways people respond to stimuli and interact with physical spaces and one another.

“We need to get away from the stigma of what constitutes the so-called norm or normal behaviors,” says LPA research analyst Rachel Nasland. “Designing for the norm excludes a large portion of the population, whereas designing for neurodiversity is more encompassing and benefits everyone.”

Neurodiverse individuals play a valuable role in society, including in our schools and organizations. Traits such as hyperfocus, complex nonlinear thinking, pattern recognition, attention to detail, sensory sensitivity and high energy can spur creativity, innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, says LPA Director of Laboratory Planning Isabel Mandujano. Many well-known scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have been identified as neurodivergent, including Stephen Hawking, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Alan Turin and Henry Ford.

“Neurodiverse individuals can be supported, inspired and nurtured by providing an inclusive culture that recognizes different needs and environments that offer a variety of choices, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach,” Mandujano says.

Recent research highlights four key areas where design can play a key role in supporting neurodiversity.

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Stimulation and Naturalness
Perhaps the most difficult design element to balance is stimulation. Many neurodiverse individuals possess heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli, including light, color, patterns, textures, sounds and movement. Too many stimuli, such as busy patterns and poor acoustics, can fatigue the senses, while too few can seem boring. When neurodiverse individuals can access their appropriate level of stimulation, they are able to hyperfocus on tasks and sustain that focus for longer durations.

“To avoid overstimulation, design solutions should focus on naturalness within the built environment, as elements of nature tend to be calming yet offer a level of complexity that is interesting but not overwhelming,” says LPA Managing Director of Workplace, Sonaly Dudheker.

In school environments, “it’s beneficial to offer a variety of spaces that allow students to select microenvironments to suit their needs,” says LPA Director of K-12, Kate Mraw. “In many cases, we look to design spaces that evoke a sense of calm, and then disperse smaller active zones for people who are comfortable operating in high-stimulation settings.”

In Dallas, the recently completed Sheffield Elementary School is organized around a central courtyard, which promotes connections to nature and supports a mix of learning environments. Inside, team teaching areas, or “learning villages” of six classrooms, surround a shared collaborative space that can be adapted to the different learning and teaching modalities.

“Students have the opportunity to choose the space that suits their comfort level,” Mraw says.

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RiverRock Real Estate Group’s new headquarters employs zoning with a mix of private, semiprivate and open zones.

Flexibility, Adjustability and Opportunities for Movement
Creating microenvironments demands a deft balance and the need for flexibility. Furniture selection, acoustic design and lighting levels can offer users greater control over their environment. For some neurodiverse individuals, a restricting environment with limited flexibility may be more distracting.

“Mobile and adjustable furniture like sit-stand desks and seating that can roll, tilt or provide continuous movement gives individuals the ability to utilize the physical environment to address the need for movement on an individual scale,” says Amy DiCosola, an LPA interiors project manager.

Rather than restricting body movement, designs that support and promote fidgeting and movement provide an outlet for neurodivergent individuals who may be understimulated or require a distraction in an overly stimulating environment. “This enhances focus for individuals with ADHD or other attention-related conditions because it allows them to fidget and move their body, so they are not distracted by resisting the need to do so,” Nasland says.

Providing multiple access points between indoor and outdoor spaces is an active design tactic that encourages opportunities for movement and exploration through the spaces. In workplace environments, many companies are electing to operate in more balanced environments that neither restrict movement nor provide completely unrestricted space.

The design of Britton Middle School in Morgan Hill, California, includes a joint common area with a dining, library and community space that can expand and contract. The ability to create smaller spaces allows for the environment to be tailored to a range of sensitivities and can benefit individuals who are hypersensitive to large social environments.

“The flexibility allows students to create movement in the space and adjust the setting to accommodate different experiences,” Mraw says.

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Connections to nature and the outdoors can provide a range of benefits.

Supporting Different Levels of Privacy for Social Interactions
Individuals with neurodiversity have varying levels of comfort in social interactions — for some, it can be completely overwhelming. When any learning or work-related environment caters only to group activities, individuals may be forced into unwanted social situations, making it difficult to refocus on a task. Providing a range of space types and sizes allows neurodiverse individuals to control their desired level of interaction and privacy, and consequently hone their focus.

“Privacy does not necessarily mean complete seclusion from others. There are different ways for people to experience being alone and being together,” Nasland says. Varied levels of privacy include being alone in private or alone among others in public, compared to being together with others in private or together with others in public.

In the newly renovated headquarters for RiverRock Real Estate Group, in Orange County, California, the floor plan has the ability to shift and change to reflect the needs of employees.

The design employs zoning, which features a mix of private, semiprivate and open zones that cater to the evolving needs of their employees.

“Providing a variety of spaces allows people, especially neurodivergent individuals, to regulate their desired level of interaction and privacy,” Nasland says. “Often, with too much open space, occupants are stripped of the opportunity to decide whether, when and how long they want to engage with others, which can be very overwhelming. Research has shown that the inability to control interactions intuitively discourages occupants from using the space.”

In the scientific environment, lab spaces tend to be stark white, noisy and brightly lit, which can be difficult for sensitive individuals, Mandujano says. Providing quiet restorative spaces for respite from sensory overload; focus rooms with different lighting, noise and color choices; and furniture and technological tools that allows movement and adaptability can “accommodate personal preferences and alternate processes,” she says.

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Simple Wayfinding
Signage and other mechanisms situated at eye level customarily play a key role in helping individuals comfortably navigate a space. But some neurodivergent individuals, particularly those with ASD and heightened sensitivity levels, are uncomfortable making eye contact, and consequently struggle to travel through a space with traditional eye-level signage.

Additionally, people with neurodiversity are likely to process spatial mapping differently, and often rely on additional senses than just sight, requiring alternative methods to assist in wayfinding. By limiting wayfinding strategies, the sense of feeling lost can cause heightened anxiety levels for neurodiverse people.

“When someone walks into a space, design nuances typically catch the eye, and neurodiverse people are often more sensitive to these nuances,” Sonaly says.

Ideally, simple floor plans and intuitive layouts can be accessible to all ages and abilities. But the balanced solution lies in utilizing floors, walls and even ceilings for a greater variety of wayfinding strategies that also appeal to more senses, like tactile and auditory cues. This can take the form of diversifying patterns, shapes and textures along floors and landscapes. It can also be achieved with biophilic design and other creative elements; the RiverRock design included accent gabion walls and a sensory-minded art collection throughout its office, helping to create different touchpoints for defining the space.

“We want all users to connect with a variety of wayfinding implements that are both active and subtle,” Sonaly says. “Why limit our creativity to only signage? Colors, textures and patterns can all play an important role as part of the wayfinding.”

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In school environments, light, acoustics and materials can play an important role in making students feel safe and comfortable.

A Larger Focus on Universal Design
In some ways, the discussion of neurodiversity and design is too limiting. In many ways, all the elements that support neurodiverse individuals also promote comfort and achievement in neurotypical individuals.

“As one size doesn’t fit all neural processes, our focus is on universal experiential design to ensure the space accommodates all individuals,” Sonaly says.

The common understanding of universal design takes into account the spectrum of physical abilities. However, to truly embody universal design, the conversation should also consider the spectrum of human thinking. Designing spaces to be more inclusive and accommodating for all is a critical step toward supporting individuals with neurodiversity.

“We can start by making room for a wider variety of people at the table, asking the right questions and listening with empathy,” Nasland says. “When we design for the neurodiverse population, the environments become more inviting, easier to navigate and more responsive to emotional and cognitive needs, which enhances the experience for everyone.”